Boots on the Ground: The Impact of Stability Operations on the Armies That Must Conduct Them

Report Defense

Boots on the Ground: The Impact of Stability Operations on the Armies That Must Conduct Them

August 8, 2005 17 min read Download Report
Major Jonathon P. Riley
Visiting Fellow

I thought I would give you a divisional commander's view, informed by two years' service in Iraq with the British and U.S. armies, as well as in Sierra Leone and the Balkans. These operations have all been complex, involving kinetic warfighting, counter-insurgency, information operations, humanitarian support, civil- military cooperation (CIMIC),[1] and security-sector reform running concurrently in the same battle space.

Modern Challenges

The division[2] is, of course, a legacy structure. How, then, is it applicable to modern, complex operations? In my view, every level of command must add value to an operation. If it does not do so, it should be removed. The divisional level is the lowest level at which deep (shaping), close (decisive), and rear (sustainment) oper­ations are organized, and the lowest level that plans and conducts operations simultaneously. The order of battle is irrelevant: If an organization does this, it is de facto a division. The temptation is, however, in this sort of operation, that because of the understandable pressures of day-to-day life, there is a tendency that a division will concern itself overmuch with the affairs of brigade com­manders and insufficiently with its own business.

Therefore, the divisional level of command will have to concern itself with a variety of tasks much wider than the simple introduction of kinetic vio­lence into the battle space. It may, for example, have to contend simultaneously with such things as:

  • Planning, resourcing, and coordinating the effort to restructure the local security forces, and in particular their command, control, communications CIS[3] and intelligence archi­tecture;
  • Our own surveillance reconnaissance, intelli­gence, and targeting;
  • Divisional level joint and combined opera­tions, whether kinetic or otherwise;
  • Coordinating and resourcing brigade opera­tions, including the identification and commit­tal of reserves;
  • Coordination with higher political and military authorities in theatre and at home, including matters of logistics, communications, and administration;
  • Future plans and contingency plans;
  • Information operations;
  • Media operations;
  • Synchronization of military operations and information with the development of essential services, governance, and the economy, and
  • Divisional Rear Operations.

This sort of complexity raises a question about the British Army's training at formation level. We claim that we train for the worst case-but do we? Our entire collective training regime and output is based on the maxim that warfighting is our most demanding activity and all other operations are seen as stepping down. Warfighting is undoubtedly highly demanding in terms of the tempo of opera­tions, the morale component, the need for timely coordination at the formation level,[4] and the provi­sion of logistic support. However, counter-insur­gency and Operations Other Than War are arguably more complex and just as demanding in other ways. At the point of contact, a fight is a fight-whether in downtown Belfast, Al-Amarah, or Wireless Ridge.

Warfighting and Operations
Other Than War

Warfighting requires weapon systems that deliver destructive effect; counter-insurgency and Opera­tions Other Than War require intelligence, surveil­lance, target acquisition and reconnaissance systems, and supporting intelligence processes, of greater precision. Firepower, although used, is at less of a premium in counter-insurgency. Warfighting intelligence training does little to prepare staffs for the fusion challenges of counter-insurgency opera­tions. The flexibility required of commanders at all levels in counter-insurgency is also arguably greater. At its most intense, counter-insurgency may require any commander, even quite a junior one, to coordi­nate air, aviation, indirect fire and organic direct-fire weapons in a battle space in which humanitarian operations, coordination with non-governmental organizations and other government departments, and security-sector reform tasks are in progress at the same time. This level is rarely practiced during collective training, in which the emphasis is on bat­tlegroup and brigade-level integration of effects. Although at a less demanding tempo than in war-fighting, junior commanders may also find them­selves responsible for briefing, tasking, enabling, and coordinating a variety of specialist agencies.

Arguably, the most challenging aspects of counter-insurgency operations are recognizing when to raise the tempo of our own operations to remain inside the enemy's decision-making cycle, and to respond appropriately. I am not therefore advocating stop­ping combined-arms[5] training, nor underestimating the importance of preparing and equipping for war. I am suggesting, however, that at times of high oper­ational commitment levels, such as now, this approach must be modified to take account of the most demanding situation that will actually face the man on the ground, and not the most demanding situation that will ever face the British Army.

The Multinational Angle

What of the multinational angle? I was fortunate in both the Balkans and Iraq to have excellent, capable partner nations who were unstinting in their support. However, in a coalition, one must be aware of national caveats and red cards. Particular­ly in Iraq, I had to be careful never to issue an order unless I had first established that it could be obeyed. This paid off over the election period when requests for aviation and medical assistance- referred to Rome and The Hague-came back with a positive response in the truly remarkable time of 10 minutes. I could rarely get an answer from my own country in less than 10 days.

One must here distinguish coalitions from alli­ances. In some ways, coalitions are more effective than established alliances: Alliances have hard-wired, permanent structures with all the attendant bureaucracy. Every member, regardless of size, has an equal say. Coalitions have ad hoc structures, made for the moment, and the amount of influence is directly proportional to the size of contribution. This means that decision-making will be driven by the most powerful member-especially when one member is overwhelmingly powerful. It is a part­nership, but a partnership of unequals.

The best solution is often a coalition formed of alliance members. In this way the military effective­ness of multi-nationality in a coalition will be partly a reflection of mutual trust and familiarity, partly a reflection of the longer-term development of com­mon doctrine and procedures through established structures like those of NATO[6] and ABCA[7], and partly a function of tempo. In an operation such as in Iraq now, where tempo is low and risk is also low, multi-nationality can go to a low level. My Danish battlegroup, for example, had one or two British companies, two Danish companies, and a platoon of Lithuanians in one of its Danish compa­nies. There is time to consult national capitals, and respect red cards in a way that is not possible on high-tempo, warfighting operations. So although the division in Iraq had three out of four multina­tional brigades or task forces, each with two or three nations with one dominant partner, this was a very manageable mix. Yet it should not be sup­posed that this degree of multi-nationality can be regarded as normal or acceptable in high-tempo, high-risk warfighting operations.

Security Sector Reform

Let me now turn to some of the challenges of security sector reform. Reforming a broken army is challenging, but the process is one that can readily be tackled by an organized military force, provided the right resources for infrastructure, equipment, sustainment, and training are applied. Some spe­cialist teams are needed for specialist functions, but in general, everyone can take part in it. It does not require special training; it is often a matter of repro­ducing oneself. The British and French armies have shown this in Africa often enough.

Police reform is another matter. In southern Iraq, Britain stepped forward to take the lead in three of the four provinces. The fourth was taken by Italy. A model was applied that had already failed in Bosnia and Kosovo, and was failing in Iraq until rescued by the military and the Italians.

Great Britain-or indeed any other nation-must only step forward to take the lead on police reform if our policing model is appropriate to the problem. It was right, for example, for us to do this in Sierra Leone with its British colonial legacy. It was not right in Iraq, which has a legal and policing model on European lines. Beat Bobbies from Hampshire, and even Royal Ulster Constabulary men, concerned with human rights and traffic violations, are of limit­ed use to a paramilitary police force fighting an insurgency. Moreover, police forces on British or American lines do not come equipped with the orga­nizational skills to reform an institution, to put sys­tems in place, to build infrastructure, or to manage complex equipment. The correct lead nation for Ira­qi policing was Italy. In the future, we should have the courage to decline the lead where it is inappro­priate for us. Nor should we use contractors except for service provision (i.e., stores control or range management). Their usefulness is too constrained by factors such as force protection, doubtful motivation, and working practices. Only professionals-whether soldiers or policemen-can produce professionals.

The Role of Civil Police

To rescue the model in southern Iraq the military had to take over the lead in many areas from civil police. The military has now formed teams to take on the lead from the civil police advisers in key areas where the military-in the absence of a para­military police organization-is best placed to lead: organization, management, control systems, administration, leadership, paramilitary training, and equipment husbandry. My division was rein­forced by Carabinieri[8] and Czech MP[9] contingents, and I was given U.S. IPLOs[10] under command. With the military in the lead in the areas I outlined, the civil police were able better to concentrate on:

  • Criminal Intelligence-to set up an integrated system of criminal intelligence databasing and encourage liaison with other Iraqi intelligence agencies;
  • Serious Crime Investigation-to address the weakness in felony investigation (the single biggest obstacle to successful prosecution of criminals) and put forward potential investi­gating officers for advanced training at the police academy;
  • Forensic Investigation; and
  • Tactical Support Units and SWAT[11] teams.

In these complex operations, the ability to expend resources on things such as security sector reform, rather than having to fight an insurgency, often depends on the degree of consent from the local population. I was able to devote resources to SSR[12] because I was not usually in the position of my counterpart in Baghdad: For the most part, I had consent. Consent is of course a relative, not an absolute concept. It can vary from place to place, and in time. It can be present at governmental level, but not on the ground-or vice versa. It is also not the same as compliance. In the Balkans, we were able to enforce compliance with the Dayton Agree­ment,[13] for example, through coercion. In southern Iraq, with a divisional AOR[14] five times the size of Kosovo and a population of six million, but with one-quarter of the troops deployed in Kosovo, there was little chance of enforcing compliance.


Consent therefore matters. But it does not come free; it has to be earned through things like profile, how you operate, how you form partnerships local­ly. And although it gives you freedom, it can also be a constraint. I did not have the problems of my counterpart in Baghdad, but if I needed to take direct action against an insurgent group, the option of a large-scale speculative cordon and search or offensive operation was rarely available. I did no more than half a dozen of these at divisional level, more at lower levels. Usually I had to spend weeks painstakingly assembling intelligence to target par­ticular people or places and then launch a quick and very accurate strike-and then be able to jus­tify my actions in the local media by demonstrating finds of weapons, explosives, or wanted men. Pro­vided one did this, consent would stand.

Nor is consent infinite, and the military can often be the prisoner of other lines of operation. Take the example of essential services in southern Iraq. For two years, the civil side has done little to improve the electricity supply, despite the expendi­ture of huge amounts of money. Demand has risen fourfold as people buy air conditioners, televisions, and freezers, but generation and transmission have scarcely moved at all. People who see no improve­ment in their lives as a result of regime change rap­idly become disillusioned, and they take it out on the most visible element of the coalition-the uni­formed military. The civil side has failed in Bosnia, failed in Kosovo, and is failing again in Iraq. If the U.S. in particular wants its program of exporting democracy to succeed, this has got to change. The military does not do reconstruction, it does CIMIC. So let me go into that a little.

Reconstruction and CIMIC

Governments, NGOs,[15] and major donors have a pretty poor record worldwide on capital recon­struction. What does this best is business. Business will flourish if three things are present:

  • Good governance-for example a working legal system, minimal corruption, banking and financial systems, and so on;
  • Security; and
  • Essential services-there is no point in setting up business if the fax machine does not work.

If the military concentrates on security, the U.N. and the national government concentrates on gov­ernance, and the donors concentrate on essential services, we have a chance of setting those condi­tions. This, in my view, should be the model for the future.

So how does CIMIC fit into this? If one accepts that CIMIC activities are primarily about building and maintaining consent, then CIMIC carries out short-term projects, in line with long-term priori­ties, to address particular needs usually related to essential services and the creation of employment. However, to carry out CIMIC successfully requires resources. Moreover, for post-conflict reconstruc­tion to work properly, short-term CIMIC and medi­um-term and long-term reconstruction all need to begin at the same time, and as early as possible. To follow up my earlier example of power generation, refurbishment of the network and the building of new power stations all need to be progressing in parallel with local-point power generation schemes that the military can put in place rapidly. CIMIC will therefore support bodies like DFID[16] or USAID[17] as they contribute to medium- and long-term elements, without getting in their way or tak­ing reconstruction into the military fold. CIMIC must therefore be looked on, and funded as, com­plementary to-but not as an alternative to- reconstruction.

So how has the experience of operations like Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, and Iraq changed the British Army? We went into Northern Ireland only six years after the end of National Service.[18] The officers and NCOs[19] were used to a particular way of doing things: very hierarchical, very rigid. Of course we had experience in campaigns like Malaya, Borneo, Aden, Cyprus, and Kenya, but these were really like pre-war imperial policing. In Northern Ireland we found ourselves fighting a sophisticated terror­ist organization, in our own country, in the glare of the media. At the beginning, we were not very good at it. Fortunately, neither was the IRA. Since then the operational environment has become steadily more complex. We have had to delegate authority to lower levels, get used to uncertainty, and deal with the media. We are used to working with aid agencies, other government departments, and allies. We have learned to use complex equipment, procured for high-intensity fighting in the Cold War, in low-intensity dispersed operations. We have become used to uncertainty, used to cultural asymmetries, and reasonably good at switching from fighting to post-conflict activities.

Lessons Learned

At the same time, we have had to take risks with our warfighting capability, sacrificing our training for the general in order to rehearse for the particu­lar. We spend much time deployed on low-tempo OOTW,[20] and have become unused to living in genuinely field conditions. We have become very subject to the long political screwdriver. Addition­ally, our government (and high command) has consistently failed to recognize that while embrac­ing a degree of high technology, we should not in doing so abandon all those low-tech skills built up over the years. These are the ones required for the complex operations, just as much as the high-tech equipment. And while one can buy equipment, one has to grow experience. Yet every success is greeted with cuts, and at every turn we are expect­ed to do the same job, in a more complex environ­ment, with less.

Maj. Gen. Jonathon P. Riley is the Commanding General, Multinational Division (South-East) and General Officer Commanding British Forces Iraq. These remarks were delivered on June 18, 2005, at "The Test of Terrain: The Impact of Stability Operations Upon the Armed Forces," a conference in Paris, France, sponsored by the Strategic Studies Institute of the Unit­ed States Army War College, the Centre d'Etudes en Sciences Sociales de la Défense (Ministère de la Défense), the Royal United Services Institute, The Asso­ciation of the United States Army, The Förderkreis Deutsches Heer, The Heritage Foundation, and the United States Embassy Paris.


[1]Civil-Military Cooperation units act very much like a provincial reconstruction team (PRT). CIMIC builds schools and fixes roads and bridges. However, unlike a PRT, CIMIC only hires and supervises local people to do the work, with little hands-on involvement in projects. Also unlike a PRT, CIMIC maintains tactical perspective.

[2]A division is a large military unit or formation usually consisting of around ten to fifteen thousand soldiers. In most armies a division is composed of several regiments or brigades, and in turn several divisions make up a corps.

[3]Communications Interface Shelter.

[4]Formation level refers to an organizational tier such as a brigade, division, corps, army, or army group.

[5]Combined Arms is an approach to warfare that seeks to integrate different arms of a military (e.g., Army w/ Air Force) to achieve mutually complementary effects.

[6]NATO or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is an international organization for defense collaboration in support of the North Atlantic Treaty, signed in Washington, D.C., on April 4, 1949.

[7]American, British, Canadian, Australian Armies' Standardization Program.

[8]The shortened (and common) name for the Arma dei Carabinieri, an Italian military corps of the gendarmerie type with police functions, which also serves as the Italian military police. Historically, a Carabiniere was a cavalry soldier armed with a carbine. Their motto is Nei Secoli Fedeli (Faithful for the Centuries).

[9]Military Police are the police of a military organization, generally concerning themselves with law enforcement and security.

[10]Interagency Program Liaison Office.

[11]Stands for "Special Weapons and Tactics" or a specialized paramilitary police unit whose members are trained to perform dangerous operations and are typically equipped with heavier armaments than ordinary police officers.

[12]Security Sector Reform.

[13]The Dayton Agreement or Dayton Accords is the name given to the agreement at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, to end the war in the former Yugoslavia that had gone on for the previous three years, in particular the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

[14]A military acronym for "Area of Responsibility," referring to the geographic region assigned to a strategic military command.

[15]A non-governmental organization (NGO) is an organization which is independent from the government. Although the definition can technically include for-profit corporations, the term is generally restricted to social and cultural groups, whose primary goal is not commercial.

[16]DFID is the United Kingdom Department for International Development and its mission is "to promote sustainable development and eliminate world poverty."

[17]USAID or United States Agency for International Development is the U.S. government organization responsible for most non-military foreign aid. An independent federal agency, it receives overall foreign policy guidance from the U.S. Secretary of State and seeks "to advance the political and economic interests of the United States."

[18]National Service is the name that was given to the system of military conscription in Great Britain between 1949 and 1960.

[19]An NCO or non-commissioned officer is an enlisted member of an armed force who has been delegated leadership or command authority by a commissioned officer. Typically, NCOs serve as administrative personnel, advisors to the officer corps, and as both supervisors of, and advocates for, the lower-ranking enlisted personnel.

[20]Operations Other Than War.


Major Jonathon P. Riley

Visiting Fellow