A New Military Covenant: The 21st century warrior?

The British military tradition is real, but it is up for grabs. Here is my account of a British military which becomes large, clever,  multi-purpose, and is deployed worldwide. Along the way, it becomes more commercial, more part-time and more argumentative.

[A personal note: Naturally, I am interested in being a bit “blue skies” but I believe I am thinking along lines which resonate with some of what, say, Sir Richard Dannatt said in 2007 and with thinking at the Ministry of Defence’s Development Concepts and Doctrine Centre.  At the end of this piece there are some other useful references.]

Here are some large modern questions:

Will the nation continue to support its military?
Will the military continue its warrior traditions?
Will the nation want to fight “wars of choice”?
Will the military become more argumentative?

Here are some questions about a future military:

How far should the military be commercialised?
How far should it be part-time and semi-pro?
How far should the military be available for international missions?
How far should the military develop policing, humantiarian or development roles?
How far can we trust the military to evaluate and endorse its missions?

The big arguments in brief

The military is one of Britain’s great assets, and (like media and finance) may well attract the brightest and best – as well as the bravest and fittest – as it develops new ways of contributing to global life.

The military remains an important feature of Britain’s self-perception. That does not mean that the British public will show its old unthinking loyalty to the military: the country’s articles of faith are changing rapidly.

The country likes the idea that it produces a military which is prepared to kill and die. But the military may develop policing, disaster and development work and find these becoming more important to its ethos and marketability.

That may suit a country whose taste for and faith in the warrior ethic may become more conflicted. In turn, a redesigned British military may find itself in demand at home and abroad. It may increasingly contract services out and in whilst expanding and diversifying its part-time branches.

In a post-deference world it is very likely that the military will want – and be required – to be more opinionated as a body and to accept that at every level its ranks will expect to be heard.

The value and limits of a kinetic military

(1) The British military as a source of pride
The British like the vigour, dash, courage, intelligence, camaraderie and sacrifice of their military. Many in the populace like the idea that our young people are prepared to fight and die. At the level of theatre and narrative, this is a good tale. But it may need enriching with wider roles.

(2) Some British young like the military
There is wide acceptance that some young people need risk and will find life-threatening activity somewhere, somehow. It might as well be in uniform as in gangs, mountaineering, or drugs. But the brightest and best may need even more to entice them into the military.

(3) Force has its own logic
The British are quite inclined to accept an argument which supposes that the world is replete in people who only understand force. Taking the war to the enemy quite appeals. But the country and its military may demand a softer role, too.

Some challenges for the military

(1) Patriotism is changing
It is quite possible that the Flag will not be much invoked in the future.

National pride is a strong force, but its style may change. Soldiers and families accept sacrifice on the basis of almost mystical and transcendental understandings which simultaneously justify action and soften suffering. But some of that is changing. We are becoming more secular and sceptical, for a start.

(2) The military family is changing
Part of the intensity of warfare – of its potential cost – flows from a modern intimacy. Even if this acceptable to the military, it may weaken the resolve of families to allow young men to fight. The military family may well become more sensitive and argumentative.

(3) The military as lifestyle choice
The general populace may increasingly see the military as a group of fellow citizens who choose a certain way of life and who will have to accept the costs of that.

 It is possible that the military, and those who support them, and the families of the fallen, may often in the future have to justify and contain their suffering within much smaller and self-defining communities.

(4) Political trust is declining
It is becoming less likely that the public will endorse conflict: political trust is low and the missions are complex and multi-national. Modern political leadership has not connected well with national populist or elite opinion. This may mean the public looks to the military for a judgment of proposed missions.

How the military can develop

(1) The chain of command may get complicated
The military may be affected by the modern phenomenon of “voice and agency”. What happens when modern military commanders lead their men into dubious missions? In the past a creed of unquestioning obedience was a crucial part of military discipline.

 Increasingly, the led will expect to be allowed to buy into missions. Yes, the military will be inclined to accept missions because they like fighting. But there will be enormous pressure on the military to explain the merits of its own missions.

(2) The military may endorse its own missions
It is very likely that politicians continue to lose the citizens’ trust. This is one of the pressures which will make it important for the public to believe that the military has assessed the merits of the missions they undertake. This might take the form of the military being required to publicly evaluate the moral value of the purposes of the mission. It more obviously will take the form of the military being required to publicly evaluate their ability to deliver the mission. These public evaluations may well become crucial to the public endorsing missions.

(3) A more thoughtful, caring military
Officers send their juniors into danger and will increasingly expect to understand and be expected to explain why the sacrifice is worthwhile. Accepting political direction or military orders may not do in future. Similarly, a more intelligent military will especially attract the brightest and best if its roles are seen to be caring as well as kinetic.

(4) A more commercial military

(a) The military may subcontract more

More of the country’s official military work may be handled by contractors, often with close ties to the official forces. Private military contractors may employ many ex-military to undertake semi-official work which is broadly in line with national objectives.

(b) British official and unofficial forces may be deployed globally

Countries and international organisations may hire the British official military and its commercial military for a wide range of functions. The US, the EU, the UN and others may all be legitimate customers for a British military with exceptionally wide skills.

(5) A wider, more diverse military

(a) The military may acquire much wider skills

It may widen its work to include all sorts of “sharp end” roles beyond the strictly military, not least in policing, development or disaster work. In each of these areas we have seen, from Haiti to Afghanistan, a need for disciplined, skilled operations which need varying degrees of military capability.

(b) A multi-skilled part-time military

As Britain’s military, official and commercial, widens its roles, the Territorial Army and other part-time and reserve branches may expand rapidly so as to bring a military dimension to all sort of professions and skills such as logistics, engineering, policing and social and commercial development.

(c) A more learned military

As the military operates in more complicated environments in more complicated ways, and has to justify itself more, it may well need far greater analytic and linguistic skills. This will enable it to hold its own in policy debates as to strategy and tactics, both with government (Whitehall and Westminster) and the public.


The nation and its lethal military
Philip Stephens remarked that it is part of Britain’s confidence about itself that: “it has armed forces willing to fight”.
Financial Times, 29 October 2009 

The military and suffering
Patrick Mercer, MP and a former soldier said: “Battalions are now taking very serious casualties – where every man will know every single person that is killed. This is an experience that the Army as a whole hasn’t had since World War Two.”

“Britain’s frontline soldiers have 1 in 36 chance of dying on Afghan battlefields”
The Times, 13 August 2007

Hard hat development work: a new reservist
The Chilcott inquiry heard several senior people say that the “Iraq Aftermath” revealed how there was a need for several sorts of “hard hat” development assistance.
Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of Defence at the time, discusses this sort of issue at pages 90, 91, 102, 105 and 184 of his Chilcot evidence.

The need for fresh thinking on the role of military and civilian individuals in post-conflict work is highlighted in “Security and Stabilisation: The military contribution”, Joint Doctrine Publication 3-40, DCDC (eg: paragraph 222, page 2-13)

Hard hat disaster relief
The Haiti earthquake demonstrated that disaster relief could not work until security was in place for humanitarian operations.   

RDN on commercialization and the military

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Publication date

02 March 2010