07 May 2009 - 09 May 2009

The military’s role and function in the 21st century

Chair: General Sir Rupert Smith KCB DSO OBE QGM

It was ambitious, even by Ditchley and RAND standards, to take on a subject as broad and deep as the role of armed forces in the context of evolving twenty-first century geopolitics.  The expertise we had gathered around the table was well used to debating the component parts of the issue, but this was an opportunity to look at the whole context of present-day conflict (nuclear weaponry aside) and the new linkages within it.  For all the recent talk about “new” threats and “unconventional” or “asymmetric” methods available to our actual or potential opponents, we were reminded that unconventional or irregular war-fighting has been more the norm than the exception since the end of the Korean War.  Where conventional campaigns have been necessary, for instance in the two Gulf Wars, American-led victories have been crushing.  Where the situation has been more irregular, our response has been much more problematic.

We found it necessary to clear the air about the predictability of events.  While some people expressed surprise that a number of logical developments had not been as readily foreseen as they should have been, others pointed out that there was no clear pattern emerging for the use of force in the modern context and we therefore had to be careful about making assumptions on which to build military capabilities and dispositions.  The judgements which political leaders came to about the quality as well as the quantity of military assets were critical, perhaps more so than was generally understood.

Nevertheless, as the discussion evolved, we reached an accumulated consensus on what we were talking about:  primarily, the use of armed force in a new context of rapidly changing geopolitics;  the conduct of international operations at both the strategic and the tactical levels;  the range of risks as well as threats, in other words “security” as well as “defence”;  the long term as well as the short term, because of the lead time necessary for instilling new doctrines as well as new weapon systems and fighting methods;  and so, in essence, the potential for a new comprehensive approach to bring government assets together well beyond just the ministries of defence.

We were conscious throughout of the central role of the United States in this whole field.  With a budget and an overall capability which, in approximate terms, matched the rest of the world put together, it was inevitable that other governments would make their decisions at least partly against the background of the direction chosen by Washington.  The US Secretary of Defense’s latest budget proposals had indicated, for the first time for some years, the need for a rationalisation of defence assets in the current economic climate, even if he had emphasised that his proposed cuts were strategic, not economic.  This was a sign of American movement away from a wide range of expensive procurements towards narrower and more affordable choices.  While Mr Gates had said that the US should “not ensure against remote risk”, he had still left plenty of scope for “discretionary” military activity.  The American capacity to develop new weapon systems and to take the military to the frontiers of new technology was a further factor making the United States an exceptional actor in the military area, as well as an essential point of reference for everyone else. 

Against that background, the conference looked carefully at European capabilities.  We were clear that, in general terms, the European members of NATO had less stomach for war-fighting, and a higher threshold for overseas military missions, than the United States.  Public opinion played a strong role in this and we needed to be clear that these were differences not just between NATO allies but also between democracies.  There was no single model for military capability that developed democracies could all share, putting greater or lesser resources into implementing it.  Histories and national priorities created deeper differences than that, to the point where it was fair to ask the question whether there was even a common language between all members of the Alliance in which to debate these issues.  From the American viewpoint, there was a tendency to regard the Europeans as free riders on the back of US global military strengths;  whereas the Europeans might counter that they were concerned with defending their way of life across a much more complex set of choices.  Some participants made a distinction between the UK and France on the one hand and the rest of the Europeans on the other.  Those two countries showed, for instance, that they understood what might be needed in the military sphere in a way not so unlike the Americans, but they were nowhere near as capable of dealing with the issues at scale.  Other European governments found it much less easy to generate the political will and the public support to commit greater resources to a range of defence capabilities or to an overseas expeditionary capacity, a situation which was unlikely to improve in the predicted economic climate over the next few years.

When we began to look at the range of choices needed in the modern context, the impact of Afghanistan made itself felt.  It was doubly difficult to decide on what the next generation of risks and threats would demand by way of an adequate defence when the current challenge was so great in Afghanistan.  Some felt that we could not wait, that Afghanistan was one type of conflict which we might not repeat in the future and that we had to work for strategic clarity in the long as well as the short term.  Others saw victory or defeat in Afghanistan as vital for our moral authority and confidence, with the outcome likely to affect directly our ability to face up to future threats.  This dichotomy was in certain ways resolved by a common understanding within the conference that, whatever the political roots of our engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the two theatres showed that a military approach, and military capabilities, on their own were well short of sufficient to deliver the objectives our governments eventually realised were the right ones.  Because of the primacy and weight of a military intervention, the international action on the ground tended in the first instance to be skewed disproportionately towards external control of the territory and the power of the military to force an answer.  Only when this approach began to show its limitations did we broaden our use of instruments to partnership with the local and regional players, sovereign ownership of the long-term outcome and civilian inputs into the non-military areas.  In the process we had learned some hard lessons about political legitimacy, clarity of the strategic concept, the importance of local communities for long term stability, the proper role of the UN and other international agencies in non-military areas and the shelf-life of a foreign presence.  It nevertheless remained puzzling that we had taken so long to understand the trade-off between external capability and internal sovereign primacy;  the relationship  between the power of the military to achieve results and the importance of progress in non-military areas;  and the paradox between the importance of the civilian input and our relative feebleness in organising it.

While we did not spend so much time on the details of new technological advances, the conference was aware of the scale of potential changes.  Both the power of weaponry in the hands of small groups and the scale of new computing and communications technology available to all levels of actors were developments whose impact was very hard to predict.  It was inconceivable that we could deter every threat as it evolved.  Nor could technology solve even the majority of problems.  Relatively low-powered countries would continue to pose enormous challenges to NATO and traditional war-fighting methods might be pushed further into the background, as our adversaries saw the advantage of moving on to unconventional ground.  It was agreed that this posed problems not just for tactical planning but also for the choice of weapon systems into the future.  There were regular references to the need for large platforms and “heavy metal” systems, some of which at least might be needed for deterrence purposes but whose dominance in procurement budgets, training programmes and military philosophy as a whole could be open to question.  Obsolescence and frequency of use were not necessarily the opposites of each other.  Also relevant was the capacity of modern industry to produce the systems we wanted, with a strong tendency in governments not to lose the industrial strengths that were appropriate for the Cold War, while showing a strong interest in completely new and high-tech developments.  Within this context the subjects of cyber warfare and conflict in space came up, both being areas where participants felt there had been a failure so far to focus systematically and where the parameters of risk and threat were unclear. 

While it would be too much to claim that there was a consonance of view even on the most important themes, it would be right for this Note to attempt a summary of what could be concluded from this wide-ranging and intensive discussion.  We had tried, after all, to cover a broad variety of challenges on both the security and the defence fronts and to point to the most appropriate responses in each case. 

-          Conventional defence.  We agreed that a conventional attack on North American or European territory was a remote prospect, but it was the fundamental duty of the state to retain a capacity to deal with it nevertheless.  Neither Russia nor China, as states outside the Alliance with the largest military capability, looked threatening in any likely military scenario.  Air and maritime responses might be sufficient to deter them if the unpredictable happened.  But China/Russia were likely to be the theoretical reference points for the kind of heavy military defence we would need to retain.

-          Asymmetrical threats.  Terrorism and, in unstable conflict areas, irregular forces were certainly current challenges and the further development of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism instruments was essential.  The use of technology by a new opponent also came into this category and we would have to be inventive in preparing defences.  It was suggested, however, that the differences between conventional and unconventional defence systems might not be as great as we assumed.  Increasingly defence philosophies, tactical planning and the needs of the day were pushing defence ministries towards a seamless connection between the two.  It would be interesting to see whether this became a mainstream approach.

-          Sources of disorder.  Failed states, chronic low-grade conflicts and ungoverned space would continue to cause real headaches for states with an interest in an ordered world and in the effectiveness of international institutions and arrangements.  Afghanistan was so serious because it combined these characteristics with those under the heading immediately above.  We agreed that this was an area where the full understanding of public opinion in our countries had not been successfully engaged.  Yet in a globalised world there had to be a sufficient number of institutions or governments capable of restoring international order.  And there needed to be well-formulated military and political strategies to deal with this area, without which an intervention could do more harm than good. 

-          Moral imperatives.  Even outside failed or rogue states, there were areas where local conflict was so ingrained, or instability so continuous, that there was pressure on the developed world to contribute to remedying situations where sustainable development was proving hard to promote.  Many such situations were in Africa, where donor countries had for some time now attempted to deliver assistance, whether in the form of training, equipment or money, which would raise the capacity of African governments to improve security on their continent.  Even post-conflict reconstruction sometimes needed a military framework.  The conference recognised that the effort so far had failed to make a catalytic difference and that the area needed further attention.  But because the level of priority was lower than that of a war, it was hard to generate the necessary momentum. 

-          Organised responses to disaster.  Finally, we considered natural disasters, resource shortages, the effects of disease, climate change or other “natural” contingencies.  The response to these had to go way beyond military capacity, but we had to concede that the military were the most organised and logistically capable of any government instrument and might have to respond to a direct instruction to contribute to solutions.  It was only wise to be prepared, when any aspect of security in a globalised world carried its own global linkages.

The conference made a fair attempt to set out responses in each of these areas.  The following were the most substantive:

-          There was bound to be an irreducible minimum for national conventional defence, but some developed democracies had already gone below it.  Several participants suggested that the investment necessary in this area had to be recalculated.  There was also a tendency to rely on last-generation concepts, particularly from the Cold War, which could be more expensive than they needed to be.  Numbers of available troops had in themselves probably sunk too low.

-          Deterrence and/or containment of potential but improbable threats were sensible concepts needing further adaptation.  If there was a continuing inclination to downscale the component parts of a deterrence system, this was probably manageable if we thought through carefully what had to be national and what had to be Alliance-dependent.  For the most capable western military powers, the maritime and air capabilities relevant to this category needed to be particularly well-judged.

Beyond these minimum requirements, the conference was clear about the emphasis needing to be placed on versatility and adaptability.  In this respect there had to be a balance: overconcentration in any one area had to be avoided.  In selecting what each government could or should do, taking into account the irrational as well as the rational behaviour of others, it was essential to start with an understanding of where gravity was taking geopolitical developments.  This placed an onus on political leaders to understand the nature of developments that might affect potential sources of conflict.  The military would then need to retain a flexibility to respond quickly to political requirements.  At the moment we were demonstrating adaptability on the ground, but it was not flowing from an organised system.  The challenge, many people felt, was to make the ongoing transformation of the military organic.  This meant teaching and training adaptability within a certain set of updated doctrines, which the military were well capable of writing if they understood the political context.  But it was also essential to link in with non-military inputs. 

Within this whole area of transformation, the conference usefully suggested certain areas of priority:

·         The military-civilian interface needed to be much more energetically organised.  While the civilian input could not be the product of a standing force, as was the case with the military, the need for civilian capacity had to be prepared for and expected in a more systematic way.  Defence, foreign policy and aid policy were complementary in their effects and so their conduct had to be linked more comprehensively.  Iraq and Afghanistan had indicated a failure to understand the peace task in sufficient detail.  Strategic planning in the future had to leave a greater place for that.

·         The effective aggregation of capabilities needed firmer top-down direction.  In recent conflicts it had always been built up from the bottom.  While it was genuinely a complex matter, our responses were too slow and uncoordinated.  There was huge room for improvement here, built on more comprehensive political understanding. 

·         Having the right people was as important as having the right equipment.  We might be underestimating our recruiting in this respect, in the military and beyond.  The range of skills required would not take long to list;  but the necessary numbers of people with them were not visible at this juncture.

·         Unity of command was an abiding orthodoxy in military circles.  But the approach in this respect in Iraq and Afghanistan had been woeful.  It was also a problem when building in the UN and other international mechanisms.  The US in particular should be encouraged to think unity of command for the whole international structure in which they were participating.  There was room for improvement in the implementation of this absolutely standard concept.

·         The importance of partnerships with the sovereign nation concerned, with the region and with the other international players put a premium on diplomacy in the modern context.  The conference felt that this had been under-invested in over the recent period.  The poorer the diplomacy, the larger the requirements on the much more expensive military instruments turned to.  Nor was the construction of good partnerships outsourceable from the core of the active coalition.  It had to be part of the central approach.

We kept coming back to the leadership role of politicians in a democracy.  The strategic framework for modern-day operations seemed to be confused.  The public were certainly short of understanding.  This placed a premium on developing a narrative, supported if possible by a more responsible media, for the objectives and conduct of military operations and for the spending of significant resources in a world where every major democracy had interests which were globalised.  Even allowing for the risks of “spin”, this conference placed a significant priority on politicians having the capacity to get this right.  With the world as complex as it was, more systematic coaching of politicians in the areas covered by this debate was regarded as important.  Then it might be possible to have a national security strategy that was linked with all the instruments necessary for its implementation.

This was a fascinating exchange, digging deeply into areas of crucial significance for the next period of international affairs.  We were fortunate in the depth and breadth of experience around the table and in having a chairman who could guide us with a sure touch through the complexities.  Ditchley is particularly grateful to the RAND Corporation who combined with us in setting up this conversation, and who we hope will have the reach in the United States to take some of the major messages home.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chairman:  General Sir Rupert Smith KCB DSO OBE QGM
Formerly:  Deputy Supreme Allied Commander, SHAPE Belgium (1998-2002);  General Officer Commanding, Northern Ireland (1996 98);  Commander, UN Protection Force Bosnia-Herzegovina (1995);  Commander, 1st Armoured Division, Gulf (1990-91).

Major General Peter Abigail (Retd)

Executive Director, formerly Director, Australian Strategic Policy Institute (2005-).  Formerly:  Founder, Peter Abigail & Associates Pty Limited;  Australian Army:  Land Commander Australia (2000-02).

Mrs Margaret Bloodworth

Formerly:  National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister and Associate Secretary to the Cabinet (2006-08);  First Deputy Minister, Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness (2003-06);  Deputy Minister, National Defence (2002-03).  Member, Board of Directors, The Canadian Ditchley Foundation.
Brigadier General W Donald Macnamara (Retd) OMM CD DSc(Mil)
Security and Defence Analyst;  Chair, Strategic Studies Working Group. Canadian International Council;  Brigadier-General (Retired), Canadian Air Force;  Professor of International Business, Queen’s University School of Business.
Commodore Kelly Williams
Team Leader, Canadian Forces Strategic Review, Department of National Defence/Canadian Forces;  Assistant Chief of the Maritime Staff (2007-).  Formerly:  Director General, Strategy (2006-07);  Director, Defence Analysis (2005).

Brigadier General Gabor Horvath

Director, Concepts and Capability Directorate, European Union Military Staff (on secondment) (2009-).

Mr Robert Cooper CMG MVO

Director-General for External and Politico-Military Affairs, General Secretariat, Council of the European Union (2002-).  Formerly:  HM Diplomatic Service (1970-2002).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.

Dr Jamie Shea

Director of Policy Planning, Private Office of the Secretary General, NATO (2005-).

Professor Dr Rob de Wijk

Director, The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies (2007-);  Professor of Strategic Studies, University of Leiden (2000-);  Chairman, National Security Think Tank, Netherlands.

Professor Julian Lindley-French

Professor of Military Operational Science, Netherlands Defence Academy;  Senior Associate Fellow;  United Kingdom Defence Academy.

Ambassador Daan W Everts

Formerly:  NATO Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan (2006-07);  Netherlands Representative to the OSCE, Vienna (2003-04);  Head of Mission, OSCE, Albania and Kosovo (1997-2001).

Dr Naison Ngoma Lt Col (Retd)

Programme Head, Security Sector Governance, Institute for Security Studies.

Mr Andy Bearpark

Director General, British Association of Private Security Companies;  Adviser on Post Conflict Reconstruction.  Formerly:  Director of Operations and Infrastructure, Coalition Provisional Authority, Baghdad (2003-04).
Professor Michael Clarke
Director, Royal United Services Institute for defence and Security Studies, London (2007-);  Senior Specialist Advisor to the House of Commons Defence Committee (1997-);  UK Member, United Nations Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters (2004-);  Visiting Professor of Defence Studies, King’s College London.
Commodore Michael Cochrane OBE
Head, Future and Maritime, Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, Ministry of Defence.
Mr Vincent Devine
Head, Strategy Unit (Policy Planners), Ministry of Defence.
Mr Chris Donnelly CMG
Director, Atlantic Council of the UK (2008-);  Senior Fellow of The Defence Academy of the UK (2006-);  Co-Director, The Institute for Statecraft and Governance (2006-).
Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Firth
On secondment, UK Cabinet Office Cross-Government Afghanistan Strategy Team.  Formerly:  Chief Plans Officer, NATO HQ Regional Command (South) Kandahar, Afghanistan;  Operational Planner, UK Joint Force Headquarters.
Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman CBE
Vice Principal (Strategy and Development), King’s College London;  Professor of War Studies, King’s College London (1982-).
General Sir Mike Jackson KCB CBE DSO
Chair, Defence Advisory Board, PA Consulting Group (2006-).  Formerly:  Chief of the General Staff (2003 06);  Commander in Chief Land Command (2000-03).
Mr Stephen Logan
Head, Security Sector Development Advisory Team, Ministry of Defence (cross-government (FCO, MOD, DFID) focus on Security Sector Reform).
Major General Paul Newton CBE
Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff (Development, Concepts and Doctrine), Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, Ministry of Defence, Shrivenham.
Ms Sara Parkin OBE
Founder Director and Trustee, Forum for the Future;  Board Member:  Natural Environment Research Council, Leadership Foundation for Higher Education;  Member:  RCUK Science in Society Advisory Board, Living With Environmental Change Research Programme;  Representative of the European Parliament, European Training Board.
Dr Andrew Rathmell
Strategy Project Director, Directorate for Strategy and Policy Planning, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.  Formerly:  Director, Defence and Security Programme, RAND Europe.
General Sir David Richards KCB CBE DSO ADC Gen
Commander-in-Chief, Land Forces (2008-).  Formerly:  Commander, Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (2005-07);  Commander, NATO International Security and Assistance Force, Afghanistan (2006-07).
Sir Francis Richards KCM CVO
Director, Centre for Studies in Security and Diplomacy, University of Birmingham (2007-).  Formerly:  Governor of Gibraltar (2003-06);  Director, GCHQ (1998-2003);  HM Diplomatic Service (1969-98).
Professor Hew Strachan
Chichele Professor of the History of War, Oxford University;  Director, Leverhulme Programme on the Changing Character of War;  Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge;  Visiting Professor, University of Glasgow.  Author.
Mr Rob Watson
BBC Defence and Security Correspondent (2005-).  Formerly:  BBC Washington Correspondent (1999-2005);  BBC United Nations Correspondent (1994-99).
Mr Nick Witney
Senior Policy Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations.  Formerly:  First Chief Executive, European Defence Agency.

Dr Sarah Percy

University Lecturer, Tutorial Fellow in International Relations, Merton College, Oxford University (2005-).

Dr Bastian Giegerich

Research Fellow for European Security, International Institute for Strategic Studies, London.

Dr Ilana Bet-El

Writer;  Historian; Political Analyst.  Formerly:  Political Analyst, United Nations, New York and the Balkans.

Lieutenant Jason Crabtree

Rhodes Scholar, University of Oxford.  Formerly:  Commander and First Captain, US Corps of Cadets (2007 08).
Mr Hans Pung
Director, Defense and Security Program, RAND Europe.
Mr Simon Springett
Humanitarian Coordinator for the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, Oxfam.

Secretary Mahlon Apgar IV

Defense Business Board (2008-);  Senior Scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (2008-);  Senior Advisor, Boston Consulting Group (2007-);  Waynflete Fellow, Magdalen College, Oxford (2004-).
Ambassador Lawrence Butler
Political Adviser, Supreme Allied Command Europe, NATO-SHAPE.  Formerly:  Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, US Department of State (2007).
Ambassador James Dobbins
Director, Center for International Security and Defense Policy, RAND Corporation.  Formerly:  Bush Administration First Special Envoy for Afghanistan;  Special Advisor to the President and Secretary of State for the Balkans;  Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director, National Security Council Staff (1996 99).
Dr Kim Holmes PhD
Vice President, Foreign and Defense Studies and Director, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, The Heritage Foundation (2005-).  Formerly:  Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, US State Department (2002-05).
Dr David Johnson
Senior Defence Analyst and Group Manager for International and Security Policy, RAND Corporation, Washington DC (1998-).  Formerly:  Vice President, Science Applications International Corporation;  US Army:  Colonel (retired).  Author.
Mr Jerry Lanier
US Department of State;  Foreign Policy Advisor, US Africa Command (2007-).  Formerly:  Director, Office of Regional and Security Affairs, Bureau of African Affairs;  Deputy Chief of Mission, US Embassy, Accra (2003-06).
Mr Michael Rich
Executive Vice-President, RAND Corporation;  Co-Chair, RAND-Qatar Policy Institute;  Chairman, International Institute for Strategic Studies-US.  Formerly:  Vice-President, National Security Research Division, RAND Corporation.