Military Transformation in Crisis – The Future of Britain’s 21st Century Armed Forces

Britain’s armed forces are currently facing the most challenging period of change since the Second World War. Two significant and unpopular conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have exposed British warfighters to the post-Cold War compromises and contradictions that lay dormant in successive defence and spending reviews: politicians’ foreign policy ambitions have been uncoordinated, underfunded and unbound; the military’s “can do” culture has produced strategic overstretch; and the Ministry of Defence’s procurement process have failed to keep pace with the demands being made of it. The result is crisis in the British Army, the haemorrhaging of the Royal Navy’s capability to project power and discussions on disbanding the Royal Air Force.

Against this backdrop those soldiers, sailors and airmen that remain in post must find a way through this toxic legacy to develop the sort of military structure that might make it possible to defend and advance Britain’s interests in the future. Force restructuring, doctrine development and reform of the Ministry of Defence may be necessary steps in this process of matching political ambition to capability. However, when it comes to providing guidance, the existing academic literature on military innovation is insufficient to deal with the reality and depth of the crisis now facing Britain’s armed forces.

For example, the current focus on learning lessons from the field of battle and using these lessons to drive organisational change is woefully short of the sort of context that might help servicemen deliver the kinds of fit for purpose military structures appropriate for the 21st century. For what this literature fails to properly account for is the way that a certain strategic framework established by powerful social groups often shapes the terms of the discussions being entertained inside the military organisation itself, ruling some possibilities out of contention even before they are given a proper hearing. As this epilogue will show, then, if Britain’s armed forces are to meet the challenges of the next fifty years, exploring who is involved in and how they define and evolve this context is vital for thinking through a response to the strategic crisis currently facing the UK.

By Dr Matthew Ford, Lecturer, University of Hull

(This is an abstract from our forthcoming book on transformation in the British Military)

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