TAG ESSAY: The Disintegrating Language of UK Defence

Written by Paul Cornish

Carl von Clausewitz, the nineteenth century philosopher-practitioner of war, once observed that the analysis of war can prompt an ‘ostentatious exhibition of ideas.’ A ‘serious menace’, he suggested, is the ‘retinue of jargon, technicalities, and metaphors’ that ‘swarm everywhere – a lawless rabble of camp followers.’ Analysis of 21st century international security – in all its instability and complexity – can have a similar outcome. There is, however, no possible benefit to be had from approaching that which we find confusing, challenging and even frightening, with language that serves only to push understanding and reason ever further out of reach.

National defence raises vital questions. Who are our adversaries and what do they want? How and when should we respond, and with what purpose? Who should decide when to act and to what end? And how much will it all cost in political, military, economic and human terms? In any democratic society these questions deserve clear and unequivocal answers. That is the task of the long-awaited Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (usually abbreviated to Integrated Review) expected to appear in January 2021. The case for more efficient and effective fusion of these complicated and costly areas of national policy and strategy – and the departments and agencies responsible for delivering them – seems compelling enough, if not obvious, to most onlookers. After all, why might anyone argue for an unintegrated or disintegrated approach to policy making and national strategy?  But by what measure will it succeed in answering these vital questions of national defence and by what measure will it succeed in communicating its message?

As well as showing how, when and where it should integrate with other areas of national policy, the defence component of the Integrated Review (IR) will be expected to explain the UK’s strategic outlook and the military posture and capabilities that will support that strategy. But is it too late to hope that this part of the IR will also be lucid and logical, and written in plain English? Part of the answer to the integration of national policies lies not only in how we analyse and act upon the problems the country faces, but also how we articulate our analysis and subsequent actions. It would make sense for all departments and agencies involved in the IR to use language in an integrating way. That is not a new or difficult proposition – it simply involves using language as it should be used, for the clear communication of shared (or shareable) meaning. Where security and defence and the resort to armed force are concerned there are important moral, constitutional, strategic and budgetary reasons for seeking clarity of expression. But the Ministry of Defence and Armed Forces do, on occasion, seem keen to use English in a pretentious and often bewildering way: using modish expressions that are laden with meaning that is not generally meaningful; a coded language to which few have the key. 

The challenges to international security and national strategy in the early 21st century are not to be taken lightly. We might well be in need of a new language to understand the evolving strategic environment but, if so, a much better job needs to be done of it. In seeking to explain these challenges, defence analysts, commentators and practitioners resort either to commonplace terms of reference intended to reassure us that we already have the necessary intellectual and analytical equipment, or to a more theatrical approach which employs a wholly new and elaborately engineered lexicon, apparently intended to shake us out of our strategic torpor. The first of these hopes to domesticate and neuter the challenges we face, using vaguely familiar terms such as ‘persistent competition’ and ‘political warfare’. But what do these terms actually mean, and do they tell us anything new or even useful? To stay with these two examples, hasn’t international politics always been about ‘competition’, in one way or another? Doesn’t competition always ‘persist’, until the point that it is no longer competition? What would ‘non-persistent competition’ amount to?  And hasn’t warfare always been ‘political’? Isn’t warfare meant to have some political purpose and to come to politically recognisable conclusion? 

The combined effect of two approaches

The theatrical approach, on the other hand, seeks to reify both the challenges and our responses to them, turning loose metaphors into fixed, concrete terms with which to describe a dramatically changed and hazardous world and to animate our response to it. These terms are often signified by the use of Capitalised Nouns and Adjectives, as though they were proper names, the meaning of which is self-evident and beyond argument. Closer inspection, however, reveals many of these terms to be more confusing than convincing. The popular idea of ‘Grey Zone’ conflict, for example, tries to persuade us that the binary, monochrome distinction (‘peace’ versus ‘war’) that has for long governed our analysis of war and conflict can now be discarded in favour of a third option. But how is it possible to describe a notional no-man’s land between ‘peace’ and ‘war’ other than in terms of ‘peace’ and ‘war’? What is grey other than a blend of black and white? 

‘Hybrid Warfare’ is an especially bewildering term; a hybrid animal is one that is not only descended from its parents but is also, importantly, different from them. Thus, a mule is neither a ‘hybrid donkey’ nor a ‘hybrid horse’ – it is a mule. The distinctive feature in much of what is often described as ‘hybrid’ warfare is that it is not ‘warfare’ as traditionally understood but a new blend of political competition and organised violence. Yet if it inherits more from politics than it did in the past, then it is odd that only the non-dominant parent (warfare) is acknowledged. What sort of a genetically confused hybrid is this? Is it really a mule? Another term, ‘Next Generation Warfare’, suggests that armed conflict evolves in more or less discrete phases and that wisdom lies in identifying where we (and our adversaries) lie on the evolutionary continuum before competing accordingly. But the history of armed conflict has rarely if ever followed a neat and predictable course and seems even less likely to begin doing so in the early twenty-first century, given the pace and scope of technological change. If Moore’s Law is anything to go by, the ‘next generation’ might arrive next year, and another two years after that. How useful can it then be to speak of ‘generations’?

The combined effect of these two approaches – one to reassure and the other to dramatise – is to make much of the Western defence discussion incomprehensible and terrifying at worst and puzzling at best: are we facing problems which are broadly familiar and manageable, or something strange, unsettling and menacing? Yet the temptation to indulge in these linguistic gymnastics is very strong, and one the UK defence debate has not been able to resist.  

Persuasive analysis and important propositions, but coded language

The Integrated Operating Concept 2025 (IOpC 25) appears to be the UK MoD’s principal contribution to the IR process – proposing the ‘strategic outlook and military posture’ mentioned earlier. The full version of the paper is classified and is not therefore available for scrutiny. However, judging by a brief summary of the document – Introducing the Integrated Operating Concept – published in September 2020, IOpC 25 offers a largely persuasive analysis of the 21st century security environment. Several important propositions are made, some familiar and others novel: the strategic context is diversifying, with a broadening range of strategic actors (and competitors); information and data technologies are developing rapidly; Western military advantages, such as air superiority, can no longer be assumed; nuclear weapons are being modernised and new ‘weapons of mass effect’ are under development; and the UK needs a ‘theory of winning’ which should, by implication, be comprehensive and integrated across government if it is to succeed against the range of complex international security challenges. The most interesting of the IOpC 25 propositions is that as well as being prepared to fight, UK armed forces should also be prepared to operate in circumstances where armed violence would be either unnecessary or inappropriate. This seems to be a form of active deterrence (of non-violent aggression), intended to complement the passive deterrence (of violent aggression) provided by the presence of capable armed forces. 

Unfortunately, however, the authors of IOpC 25 have also succumbed to the use of coded language. One such term, the ‘threshold of war’, is especially popular and appears no fewer than twelve times in the brief introductory document. The problem with it is not only that it is a relatively new idea originating in a distinctly Western view of the international order, but also that it is a very weak metaphor. It implies that war (or armed attack, or armed conflict) is a clearly recognisable state of affairs; that we will know when we have entered into it and when we have not. 

A continuum instead of a threshold  

The term has its origins in 1949; Article 5 of the Washington Treaty speaks of an ‘armed attack’ which could trigger the collective self-defence commitment among NATO allies. NATO’s Article 5 draws its authority in turn from the United Nations Charter, published a few years earlier, Article 51 of which refers similarly to the right to self-defence being triggered by an ‘armed attack.’ Yet although the precondition for the exercise of self-defence is armed attack, neither the UN nor NATO have yet defined the latter term. The so-called ‘duck test’ (“If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, quacks like a duck – it’s a duck”) seems to be the best guide. 

We also know that the 70 year old idea of a ‘threshold’ has barely kept pace with modern developments in international security. NATO has invoked Article 5 on one occasion – the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001 – which was arguably more a demonstration of political solidarity than an Alliance-wide commitment to collective self-defence. In 2007 Estonia (a NATO member) experienced a series of cyber attacks which were so intense that some argued for Article 5 to be invoked. But the ‘threshold’ had not been crossed, at least not indisputably. This prompted a debate in NATO as to the nature of a ‘cyber attack’ and whether it should trigger collective defence or the weaker ‘commitment to consult’ under Article 4. The outcome is that NATO now considers that a cyber attack could indeed trigger Article 5, but only if and when the attack is ‘serious’ – a ‘cyber duck test’, perhaps. 

‘Threshold of war’, and its derivative ‘sub-threshold’, are not strong metaphors and neither do they represent the norm in strategic history and current practice. A more accurate image is that of a continuum from peace and stability through to violence and instability; the notion that there could be a single, clear dividing line between one and the other is probably unsustainable. The Introduction to the Integrated Operating Concept also sparks other concerns, such as the claim that our adversaries might have a novel and devilish plan ‘to win without fighting’ – but this is an idea with which we have been familiar for about 2,500 years, pace Sun Tzu’s The Art of War

Reference is also made to the idea, derived from Clausewitz, that war has a constant ‘nature’ and an ever-changing ‘character’. We learn that the character of war is evolving ‘rapidly’ and ‘significantly’ and is ‘transforming’. But of course it is: this is what war does and is precisely what Clausewitz was getting at – we cannot on the one hand subscribe to his analysis and then appear to be surprised by it. The introductory document contains at least one other exaggerated claim – that a ‘new model’ of deterrence is not only required but has been discovered. We are told that the addition of ‘competition’ to the ‘traditional deterrence model’ will make it possible to ‘compete below the threshold of war in order to deter war.’ This is the logic behind the ‘operate’ proposition discussed above. But the raison d’être of deterrence has always been to manage competition and tension without the resort to armed conflict; modern deterrence does not require a ‘more competitive approach’ – it already has one. 

Intellectually lazy instead of lucid, solemn and uncluttered language

IOpC 25 also contains language which is far stranger. In what might be a nod to the Harry Potter school of strategy, we learn that we should be searching for ‘a North Star to help us develop the modernised force beyond 2030.’ Force modernisation is a critically important task of strategic risk management but it is not helped by fanciful language such as this. Nor is it helped by the idea that we should distinguish between ‘sunset’ and ‘sunrise’ capabilities; the first being destined for the scrapyard and the latter worthy of our investment. Who is to decide, when should we invest and on what basis? Military innovation has seldom worked in such a clear-cut and decisive way – one notable exception being the change by the world’s navies from paddle wheel to screw propeller which took place ‘almost overnight’ according to Matt Ridley in How Innovation Works. And in any case, to extend the metaphor ad absurdum, it might be useful to observe that sunset and sunrise do not happen simultaneously all around the world. 

The Western defence debate generates many insightful, informative and timely arguments. But it is also, sadly, home to a cottage industry of nonsense. The UK should not contribute to this – the language of national strategy and defence should instead be lucid, solemn and uncluttered. The UK defence establishment should avoid having a jargon-ridden conversation with itself. It should be clear as to the message it is seeking to communicate and should think more carefully about its intended audience (and how they use the English language). It should also avoid hyperbole. 

Introducing the Integrated Operating Concept claims that its parent document, IOpC 25, represents both ‘the most significant change in UK military thought in several generations’ and ‘a fundamental shift in military philosophy’. The first of these claims might be justifiable, pending closer analysis of IOpC 25, but the second much less so; if this is ‘philosophy’ (let alone ‘fundamental’) then I am Aristotle. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’ on 12 October 2020, Professor Tina Beattie, an academic and broadcaster, warned that ‘We are gradually anaesthetised to settle for the banality of words without substance, and jargon without meaning in our increasingly impoverished public discourse.’ She could well have been writing about the trend to pretentious obscurantism – the last resort of the intellectually lazy – that defines too much of the current security and defence discussion in the UK and elsewhere. But to make the point most vividly we should return to Clausewitz, whom some would describe as the only philosopher of war to have emerged so far in the modern period. Clausewitz made these memorable comments in his seminal On War (the Howard & Paret edition):

We will […] avoid using an arcane and obscure language, and express ourselves in plain speech, with a sequence of clear, lucid concepts. […] If concepts are to be clear and fruitful, things must be called by their right names.

Carl von Clausewitz