PS21 Report: Former UK Special Forces Chief on 21st Century Defence


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  • In a hyper-connected 21st century, threats to stability, security more varied
  • State and non-state adversaries becoming more adaptive, flexible
  • Militaries must develop, access skill set beyond traditional main armed services
  • Credibility, adaptability now as important as pure military capability
  • Understanding politics, narrative, economics more important than ever

On Monday, June 1, 2015 the Project  for Study of the 21st Century (PS21) held a discussion on “Defence of the Realm” with former UK Director Special Forces and Commander Field Army Lt Gen Sir Graeme Lamb.

The discussion took place in Canary Wharf, east London and was moderated by PS21 executive director Peter Apps.

A full transcript can be found HERE 

The event was live streamed; a full video can be found here:


“It’s not the strongest or most intelligent species that survives, it’s the one that adapts. My experience is that those who wish us harm are adapting very quickly.”

Traditional military capability is no longer enough.  Potential adversaries – both non-state groups like Islamic State and rival powers such as Russia, China and Iran – are innovating fast in this space.

“We left the last century where the United States absolutely got to the finish line. Capability dominance — they nailed it. What do we see now in those who test us today? They are now in fact capable of “capability avoidance”. What will be the next step?”

“There’s a great line: “if you don’t like change, you’ll like irrelevance even less”. The danger is that we’ll find that we’ve got into “capability irrelevance”.”

New conflicts are increasingly as much battles of propaganda and narrative as industrial clashes of arms.

“Take “hot” and “cold” wars. In a “hot war”, what really matters is capability. It is credibility. How good is your tank? As you get into “cold” or “cooling wars”, what matters more is your intent. You start playing in a whole series of economic, proxy, propaganda fields, hybrid etc.”

“But I think we’re going through and beyond that too. We’re going into these new spaces in many ways where the capabilities that we have now don’t match the threats that we are being presented with. We’re trying to sort of muddle through and yet the dangers I sense are very real.”

Recent wars, attacks bring alarming lessons and  go well beyond traditional military focus/skill set.

  • Individuals, small groups now much more capable of wreaking mayhem
  • In Ukraine, Russia’s Putin “playing a bad hand very well”
  • Ultimately,  ISIS war end must involve multi-ethnic political settlement in Iraq, Syria
  • ISIS depends on holding territory to maintain narrative, legitimacy. Must be taken back
  • In conflicts like Nigeria, engaging early, much better than intervening late

UK defence spending has declined considerably as a relative proportion of government expenditure since the 1980s relative to health, welfare and other areas.

“If I look at the British Army… my view is that whatever ceiling we were at — 82,000 plus 30,000 in reserve — for a nation of 63.9 million people and the budget we have… sounds about right.”

“If someone turns around and says: “reduce that radically”, you’re just accepting that we will have no part in trying to stabilise a world that is unravelling. And yet we assume that we will still be able to conduct global affairs, global finance, global logistics, global resources and that everything is going to go right without actually putting our hands in.” 

 Strategic Defence And Security Review brings tough decisions.

  • “Exquisite” equipment must not come at  cost of usability, broader flexibility
  • Having the best people and giving them opportunities as important as kit
  • Defence spending as a proportion of UK government total well down on 1980s
  • Little room to cut personnel numbers without seriously compromising ability
  • Services should remain separate entities but joint planning/strategy vital
  • Reserves may be only viable option in new areas e.g. social media, cyber
  • UK must be willing to allow private sector to play role

To be relevant in the 21st century, the military must become much better at liaising with those outside of it. Government in general must broaden its expertise.

“We need to find a balance between the conventional and unconventional, the ability to deal with the hybrid, the emerging threat, the relationship between security services, SIS, GCHQ, immigration, police, counter-terrorism and the Armed Forces.”

“I find it extraordinary that the National Security Council doesn’t have a serious economist. When I look around the world, invariably when I go into a country the first thing I’m looking at is the underlying finances, employment expectations and economic prosperity.”

 “It’s about shaping events. There are some opportunities to pick up for young men and women out there which I would leap to in a heartbeat if I could.”

gl report

Retaining public support for military expenditure, activity and occasional intervention will require a major public discussion. The same is true in some other areas – particularly the use of meta data and surveillance techniques to track dangerous elements, particularly militant groups.

“In the 1980s, we were casting a significant amount of GDP into defence to combat, challenge and match the Warsaw Pact. [The threat] has just got broader and yet somehow we don’t recognise that clear and present danger.” 

“The reality was that we were not good at constructing a compelling narrative which got the reasons why and what we needed to defend the realm. It’s not about spinning. It’s about trying to articulate.”

Additional quotes/conclusions

“My view would be that this century is different from the rest. If we run with that premise we have to not undo everything because in many ways that would be crazy. But we have to recognise that there are now other parts of defence that need to be attended to with the same passion, motion, discipline that has gone into looking after our single services and the defence business.”

“Everybody has got a mobile phone or two. There are 300 million users of the dark web. You’ve got this massive energy of people who are connected. Perception becomes reality very quickly and people react. It sounds like it should make us better informed. In fact, we’re just connected. There are those who want to use that for infinite mischief.”

“We are going from uncertainty into the unknown… What I sense is a world in which our order as we know it is being challenged in many ways. We have every reason to then review how we defend this realm and that order.”

Other major powers including Russia and China also have a stake in the protection of the existing global system, even if they want to tilt it. Being too aggressive has drawbacks.

“If you poke Iran and Russia and China too hard, they just coalesce in many ways. It’s good to talk. Take someone like President Putin: pragmatic, practical, very Russian, in many ways recognises history. That doesn’t mean I’m an apologist for him. I’m not but the simple truth is there are some things we need to recognise and not treat as a simple game of checkers.”

“Don’t forget, the Russians play chess, the Chinese play Mahjong. It would be fascinating to have someone like Henry Kissinger come along and just recall. The rules have not really changed from the Russian perspective. We’ve moved on. The truth is we’ve forgotten how the rules worked — that old-fashioned, hard-nosed, very private diplomacy. We’ve sort of lost the art of that.”

“You should not underestimate [President Putin]. He is playing I think a bad hand extremely well.”

Beating Islamic State also requires more than just a military strategy. 

“If war is a continuation of politics by other means, to politics it must return. (But) the caliphate must be taken back. So somebody’s boots are going to have to be on the ground.” 

To survive, ISIS needs to keep delivering propaganda victories — one reason it was willing to throw so much at Ramadi until it captured it in May 2015. 

“We have to try and combat that with a compelling and appropriate narrative and have a whole range of different people engaged. We’re really crap at that and they are really good. But their weakness is there a need for territory — they need to have a caliphate, a physical space.” 

Ultimately defeating them also requires political resolution in Baghdad that reconciles Sunni, Shia and Kurd. That means a level of devolution in which all component regions remain happy to stay in the same state; breaking the country up is much less viable. 

“It’s about getting the political scene right… they need great leadership, political leadership and military leadership. That was ruined — the military leadership under Malaki — and the political leadership is suspect. The problem now is the deep involvement with the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps). They are in many ways seen to be those who are fighting alongside and leading not only elements of the Iraqi army and all the rest.” 

That creates difficult dynamics on the ground. Sunni tribal leaders in ISIS areas fear the return of Iraqi troops and Shia militias will bring brutal reprisals.

“Those forces will generate refugees. Refugees will break the Middle East.”

These dynamics require more complicated and wider ranging skill sets than those traditionally taught by staff colleges. Some of these have, however, already been picked up in the recent Iraqi and Afghan campaigns.

 “There’s an awful lot of people that wear uniform today — and people like me who are now old blokes — who get the “to politics it must return”. The world we in fighting has this range of different spaces which if we do not address we will be undone by.”

On occasion we do need to absolutely bring violence to bear, people have to be killed or to be what I call “shaped”. And you could shape them with a B-52 (bomber) or you can shape them by sitting opposite them and having a conversation which turns around to — as it did in Iraq — to “how does this end?”

To be successful, however, those conversations often require the credible threat of force. 

“You have to have the capability and credibility. In fact it’s your will — it’s not about warfare, it’s will-fare. The Armed Forces have to be prepared to put themselves in harm’s way and see whoever calls them out.” 

“What we have — and I understand it entirely — is a public and political dislike for intervention. The problem is we tend to intervene late. And large, because we’re going late. What we should be doing is to engage and early.” 

“There will be cases where we need to intervene, much as people might challenge all that.”

The key, therefore, is a flexible force. 

“When I look at exquisite equipment at whatever cost, I’m more interested in having an adaptive force. If you’re going to have an air force that consists of just F-35 then no, actually we need a more balanced force.”

“I look at things like C130 (Hercules transport aircraft) and say: “be careful, keep that in place, move it out at a time when the A400M (replacement) has proved itself.”

“You have to be careful how you structure yourself. But if you had a lot of people doing operational training teams — company level or battalion level training — for a decade or two in Nigeria then you wouldn’t have the problem we now have with Boko Haram.”


Current reforms by head of the British Army Gen Nick Carter are already looking to make the force much more flexible. The Army is looking at taking a division and turning it into a more active, regionally focused force capable of sending out multiple much smaller training teams and units. 

Building a rationale and strategic approach for operating such teams in potentially hazardous areas, however, is important. 

“If you say we will only send a force out if it is absolutely safe, my view is that you might as well disband the bloody lot.”

“As a young man, my view was that I expected to go into harm’s way and I think that that has not changed for anyone in uniform. You know you don’t rush to get killed. But if you lose some people along the way, that’s what it takes.

One of the major risks of the SDSR is that activity and training suffer because of the focus on cost saving, rendering the military much less appealing.

Some efficiency savings are possible, however, such as in the number of non-uniform personnel, bases etc. What is most important, however, is that the focus on saving existing programs is not allowed to completely dictate everything else. 

“Once you say that people cost inflation plus and equipment costs rise more and you’ve got to make savings, where does that come from? It comes from activity. If I’m a young pilot or I’m in charge of a ship’s company or troops training and I can’t anymore because there is no fuel, I’d rather come to the City.” 

The person who should have most say is not the head of the army or the Navy or the air force but the Joint Force Commander at Permanent Joint Headquarters in Northwood — the officer who is most likely to have to actually take the British military to war and do things with it. 

“My view would be to allow him to look at the spaces where the world is today and will be tomorrow and ensure that actually we are able to act. That might be the reserves — those that wish to have a purpose in life and are so expensive (in their skill set such as cyber security) but are just so dammed good and who will come for a period.” 

“I don’t need them to be able to do some kind of assault course, I just need a boy or girl to be able to deliver really clever algorithms and look into these complicated spaces and see how they integrate and what we need to do.”

Sacrificing one capability to protect another is always risky. Having disposed of the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft, with Russian submarines now prowling on the edge of its waters, the UK now needs a replacement. New technology may provide cheaper alternatives, however. 

As important, arguably, is providing defendable and achievable missions and roles for young service personnel that address the key challenges. 

“The truth of the matter is that it is really important because it is the sense of belonging, the sense of what these people bring to the fight, that in many ways differentiates them.” 

“In a lot of these specialist areas, 77 Brigade (social media specialists), cyber, you just can’t afford these people (full-time). Can you find 30,000 people out there to come in? Of course you can. A lot of people out there need to have this sense of purpose. Actually they will feel better for doing it.” 

Private sector solutions are also important. 

“The UK has a real problem with the commercial sector. If I go to America I see the relationship between commerce and the Agency (CIA). If I really want to get some skinny on a problem in my previous world, I would go to the foreign office, SIS, I would love that all of that and then I would go and find one or two people in the commercial space.”

“They have a lot more flexibility, they can move quickly. They can change and economic dynamic. In many ways it has more power and leverage than the best of government.” 

“The commercial field is important but somehow we see it as dirty in this country.. It’s changing a little but it’s taking forever.”

 There is a need for a wider discussion on surveillance and counter-terrorism. 

“There is a debate that we should absolutely have and in many ways embrace and lead.” 

“If you go back and look at the early period of the Enlightenment — Hobbes, Grotius, Montesquieu, Rousseau, just keep ticking the names off — people put their lives at risk, were excommunicated etc as they fought to try and understand the relationship between the individual and the state. And this went on for a great period of time and in many ways brought about responsibilities, obligations, freedoms and rights.” 

“We have not had that debate yet and the world is changing.” 

“The idea that it took armies, navies and an air force to bring industrial violence to bring change or threaten our way of life is something of previous eras. You could find an army, navy or air force. Today, just a few souls can challenge our way of life and our safety and security.” 

“So you have a problem which is what level of surveillance, of intrusion into your civil liberties should we have? We need to have a debate on it. I have no issue with that and would welcome the lunatic right and the lunatic left and everything in between to try and actually struggle this sense of responsibility.” 

“The ground rules have changed such that… a few souls who do not register on a network, don’t come up. You go back and look at the Madrid bombings — 220 people dead, changed the government. That was from just one e-mail coming out of Iraq which said: “do something”.”

Report by Peter Apps. Transcript by Gabrielle Redelinghuys and Claire Connellan

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