Why Do We Need Armies?
The Duke of Wellington once said “I mistrust the judgment of every man in a case in which his own wishes are concerned.”
I have just had the honor these two days past to chair an excellent conference here in Amsterdam entitled “Future Land Forces.” What made it particularly interesting is that I learned a lot from a lot of excellent people. Professors are like generals in many ways; put a title in front of a name that is longer than six letters and suddenly they think they know everything. The best (and I am most certainly not claiming that for myself) understand that to stop learning is to fail.
As ever I was robust in my chairmanship. I pointed out to the assembled military and civilian great and good that I had a Wellingtonian distaste for the endless battle between armies, navies, and air forces over who gets the most of an ever-shrinking pot of my taxpayer’s money. Indeed, I find the whole inter-service bickering not only utterly misplaced these days but downright irritating. In the future no-one can afford to “own” (in military-speak) land, sea, or air. That is why I asked the conference attendees to answer a question: why do we need armies? In future 'we' will 'it' do all from the air, n'est ce pas?
Two things stood out. First, the vital role smaller militaries such as the Dutch have to play. The Dutch have their foibles (I know I am married to one), not least a tendency to lecture the rest of us about how to do the things they are not doing better. However, they lack that mixture of hubris, narrowness of vision, and a lack of means from which Britain too often suffers. It is pressure that encourages a delusion that one can go on maintaining the same level of strategic and military ambition however small budget cuts render the force. I hear a lot these days in the stratosphere of self-interested politicians about doing more with less. From my experience one tends to do less with less. Because the painfully pragmatic Dutch military have absolutely no delusions of grandeur they are in a very good position to see the world as it is. Unless the rest of us properly re-balance strategy with capability, at some point it will lead to disaster. For the Dutch it is only a shame their politicians are so weak in matters strategic.
The second wake-up call was an excellent presentation by a Brazilian general. Talk about the changing of the guard! The general wanted to share a problem with us. How does one manage seven “strategic projects” at once? Amongst the Europeans in the audience there was an audible “what?” It is at moments like these that one sees the shift in the global balance of power in practice and one glimpses the complex and multipolar future that awaits us all.
There were of course some serious take-aways from the conference. Critical innovation does not have to be expensive and should be focused on the soldier and his/her needs. All armies are looking at how to develop best practice throughout the ‘business’ but they are still not very good at sharing their thoughts with friends and allies. Indeed, they are still by and large far too conservative for the age in which we live. Military education is vital right up the command chain but what is on offer these days from we academics is by and large woefully inadequate. And, in the absence of big enemies (apart from the wretchedness of austerity) there are no big drivers towards the kind of radical military transformation leading to a truly seamless air, sea, and land force within the state and much deeper integration beyond that strategic logic would suggest. We are all going to have to muddle through but at least we can try and be more intelligent about it.
Wellington was right. Armies have to stop looking for a battle that suits them and render themselves much fitter for the battles that I genuinely fear lie ahead this century. And we all must stop recognizing only as much threat as we can afford. Mind you what Old Beaky would have done with an air force is a thought to ponder.
In the end I got the answer to my question about why we need armies from a recently retired British general and good friend. “It’s the geography stupid!” he told me, in so many words. People tend to live there.
Finally, do not allow the word ‘smart’ anywhere near ‘defense’. And, if I hear one more officer talk about ‘thinking outside of the box’ I fear I might find myself in one!
Julian Lindley-French is Eisenhower Professor of Defence Strategy at the Netherlands Defence Academy, Fellow of Respublica in London, Associate Fellow of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies and a member of the Strategic Advisory Group of the Atlantic Council. He is also a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the NATO Defence College in Rome. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French's Blog Blast.