OPINIE - BUITENLAND
The appetite for risk in dismounted close combat
COLONEL (UK ARMY) NEIL UNSWORTH OBE
COMMANDER MISSION TRAINING AND MOBILISATION CENTRE
‘By its very nature, military activity is about understanding, balancing and taking risks, rather than avoiding hazards. Risk is an expression of the probability and implications of an activity or event, with positive or negative consequences, taking place. It is a measure of the likelihood of something going right or wrong, and the associated impact, good or bad’.
This article is about the Army’s appetite for risk. It covers some well trodden ground and draws upon the arguments made by many like-minded individuals over the past few years: it does not profess to be original. My real concern, and the driving force behind the article, is that, in spite of the repeated airing of well argued concerns, the British Army appears to be continuing down the path of an increasingly risk-averse culture.
We are at a critical juncture, as our operations in Afghanistan draw down and we return to preparing for a war rather than the war. The paradox is that risk-aversion is a dangerous path to follow for any professional warfighting force. Conceptually, it is the antithesis of our professed practice mission command. Physically, it increases protection to a degree that survivability is compromised. I am convinced that the key factor behind this culture is fear; not a fear of the enemy nor even a fear of casualties (although undoubtedly political pressure here) but a fear of legal action against individual commanders. Firstly, I will consider why we are becoming more risk-averse, then some of the areas where problems are manifesting themselves and how we are currently managing risk. The paper concludes that, while heeding the lessons of the past ten years of combat in a specific environment, we must return to accepting a greater degree of risk and that its management is devolved to a much lower level.
An Army increasingly Risk-Averse
An assumption when writing this article is that readers will accept that the Army has indeed become increasingly risk-averse over the past decade. I have heard it said many times during Op HERRICK 18 that British soldiers are now dressed in accordance with the wishes of barristers, Daily Mail readers and insurance companies rather than what makes sense to their tactical commanders. Write this not only to be deliberately provocative, for the situation is clearly more complex than such a statement suggests, but because common parlance has an effect in itself. There is truth in this statement too.
The Lessons Exploitation Centre (LEC) readily admits that the first question asked by Ministers in the event of casualties is what Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) were they wearing. This high level interest in one particular factor has had, and continues to have, a disproportionate affect upon decision making. There is a tangible fear of litigation and stifling of flexibility for commanders on the ground. As I will discuss later, there is a considerable difference between protection and survivability which is not readily understood outside the military.
Further down the line are the comments of coroners at inquests. Inquests dissect specific events surrounding fatalities in great detail and rightly so. The lessons identified as a result of such rigour are invariably of value but the danger is that the lessons can be taken out of context or too widely applied. I suggest however that the representation made by the Army is not as well executed as it might be. The RAF has historically provided expert witnesses when challenged by the Civil Aviation Authority in a way that the Infantry, for example, does not. The challenge is not only to articulate the case in a credible manner, not easy when tactics are not measurable in the same way as aircraft procedures, but also to prepare our officers better for the alien environment of the courtroom. I see the way forward being through the careful selection and thorough preparation of our representatives using the experience gained by lnquest Officers. Selection being based upon genuine subject matter expertise rather than a belief that anyone who has passed through Sandhurst knows enough about dismounted close combat.
Protection and Survivability
The protective equipment now worn on operations is undoubtedly first class in delivering what it has been designed to do, providing protection against various pieces of hot metal moving at high speed towards the human body. The question is whether there is an effective understanding of the difference between the concepts of protection and survivability, which are two very different things. When producing main battle tanks, it is commonly held that there are three key factors which influence its design: mobility, firepower and protection. This is equally applicable to the humble infantryman. Even in the 21° Century, neutralising the effect of a high-velocity round still means wearing something big and heavy, which in turn means that you are neither swift nor agile. Speed and agility are both effective methods of avoiding being acquired as a target in the first place.
We have heralded the success of OSPREY body armour based upon the objectively measurable statistic of how often it has prevented the penetration of enemy small arms fire. What cannot be measured, but is equally significant, is how many times infantrymen have been hit with small arms fire because they are moving slowly and lacking situational awareness (SA) as a result of wearing cumbersome OSPREY and other protective equipment including electronic counter measures (ECM). Similarly, statistics would be extremely difficult to find which show how many times lightly equipped soldiers have not been hit because of their speed and agility.
Operational Risk Assessment
We have, as an Army, gradually seen the loss of the ability to make operational risk assessments at a low tactical level because we have removed such freedoms.
Even in my time as a platoon commander, recce patrols travelled light, often dressed in soft hats with magazines in pockets, moving swiftly but quietly. Their survivability depended upon skill rather than physical protection. Today, a battlegroup commander does not have the freedom to dress and equip his men this way, let alone a platoon commander. It is ironic that the same platoon commander does have the freedom to make tactical decisions which often have a ‘life or death’ impact. A recce patrol and a fighting patrol are likely to be identically equipped; burdened with specified amounts of ECM, ammunition and PPE. In a bid to satisfy the desire to be ready for anything, they are optimised for nothing.
We must resist strongly the forces which will exhort us, as an Army, to retain equipment and modus operandi borne solely from the Iraq and Afghanistan experience. Financial pressures mean that we will be forced to use protected mobility vehicles optimised for COIN in desert conditions in very different environments for years to come; let this not encompass dismounted close combat equipment too. Watching fit and determined Platoon Sergeants’ Battle Course students struggle through Sennybridge Training Area FIBUA village in OSPREY at walking pace was enough to convince me that something has gone wrong.
Enhanced Combat Body Armour is a reasonably effective compromise between mobility and protection but why not base the decision on the threat and allow commanders a choice. The greatest threat could actually be environmental, heat rather than bullets. A choice of plate-carriers through to OSPREY with collars and brassards using existing plates would be a good start.
The experience of COIN operations over the last ten years has also led us to an unprecedented situation with regards to casualty evacuation (CASEVAC). For the generation of soldiers who have only been in the Army during this era there is an expectation from some that the mission will be forfeited for a single casualty and that the entire focus of a battlegroup (BG) will shift to achieve his extraction within the ‘golden hour’.
War is a bloody business and when training to fight a near-peer enemy, a return to an earlier mindset is required. Training for high intensity operations before the days of Iraq and Afghanistan, the British Army kept the prime principle of war firmly in mind. For an Infantry company, this meant fighting through, in spite of suffering casualties, until a position was taken and then focussing on the casualties as part of the ‘reorg’. There was a dear understanding at subunit level, and down to the individual rifleman, that to disrupt the momentum of an attack to evacuate a casualty would invite disaster. By apparently mitigating the risk to an individual, the threat to the group would increase exponentially. The logic is dear to professional soldiers but altering the expectations of politicians, the media and the general public will be a significant undertaking.
Where stands Military Judgement these days?
It seems to me that in today’s Army, increasingly obsessed with health and safety procedures, that the risk assessment process too often replaces the action. The reliance on an experienced officer’s military judgement is routinely buried under direction and regulations which are barriers to the individual taking responsibility. I do not see that an increased emphasis on accountability and risk management need necessarily be accompanied by a corresponding decline in willingness to rely on human judgement.
Onora O’NeilI argued that the desire for ever greater accountability, accompanied by technical changes making it ever easier to measure and record has led to a situation where professionals, especially in the public sector, are increasingly judged by performance indicators, and often with highly perverse results. This is increasingly true in the Army. Detailed conformity to procedures and protocols for record keeping, provision of information in specified formats and success in reaching targets occupy an increasing proportion of time while time given over to actually thinking about an activity is declining. I am increasingly concerned at the growing cohort that appears more interested in whether procedures have been carried out punctiliously than in effective leadership and the effect on people. In the words of Sir Charles Haddon-Cave: ‘Procedure is increasingly used as a self-protective prophylactic, rather than as a means to an end of improving safety. Modern management, regulations and governance increasingly seem to find comfort in complexity and compliance. This trend must stop. Elaborate layers of procedure, process, committees, bureaucracy and outsourcing can, and do, serve as a substitute for thinking, obscure real problems and waste valuable time and resources. Keep it simple’.
I would argue that military success relies strongly on human judgement, willingness to take risk and, associated with this, to make occasional mistakes.
Making mistakes is a natural part of the learning process, to quote a Native American proverb, ‘if you never make mistakes, you never make anything’. We are now in an Army where the view that making a mistake is automatically career-limiting is commonly held by our subalterns and captains; and with some justification. I am not talking about social misdemeanours but rather tactical actions. With longer courses meaning less time at regimental duty, there are limited opportunities to influence a reporting officer. The overwhelming view is that it is better to conform and perform in a mediocre, expected manner than to take bold, innovative action which could fail. As a result, we are creating a future generation of risk-averse commanders; a breed of ‘Maginot-liners not Blitzkriegers’. I thought that lesson had been learned the hard way. There are different degrees of failure, and this is the key. There is ineptitude, typified by an inability to give clear direction, meet timings, control sub-units or react to changing events and there is innovation, where some new approach or tactic is tried out. The former needs eradicating while the latter must be encouraged. Inevitably some of these new approaches will not work as intended, probably the majority, but we must experiment all the same, or else we will become adherents of template solutions; predictable and pedestrian. In short, we are setting the conditions for defeat. As we return to training for ‘a war’ we will come under increasing pressure to reduce risk in training. While we must take our duty of care to our soldiers seriously, we need to consider where residual risk lies and balance training accordingly. If we do not train in tough enough conditions in peacetime we will not fulfil our duty to prepare our soldiers properly for war. The British Army’s tong history of field firing sets it apart from forces that fire only on gallery ranges. It inherently involves much increased risk in training but reduces risk in war, both in terms of effect on the enemy and reduced likelihood of fratricide through heightened awareness.
As we return to training for ‘a war’ we will come under increasing pressure to reduce risk in training.
To conclude, as the British Army re-enters a period of contingency we must carefully examine our appetite for risk. The hard-won lessons of the last decade of counter insurgency need to be learned but not to the extent that we compromise our ability to conduct high-intensity operations. What emerges is the need to consider survivability in dismounted close combat rather than pure protection, with a subsequent effect upon personal protective equipment and tactics. We need to reconsider our priorities when conducting operations: the impact of focussing on casualties rather than the defeat of the enemy, combat operations and adjust to major combat operations. We must aim once again to value judgement rather than hiding behind procedures. We must tolerate mistakes in training and train hard, rather than transferring the risk to operations where the penalties are much more severe. These recommendations represent a great deal of change, change that will need to be accepted by soldiers, politicians, the media and the general public. It will not be easy and, like everything else in the Army, success will depend on strong leadership.