The UK and the Changing Character of Conflict and Intervention

On the 8th of May 2014, a workshop jointly organised by the University of Birmingham, University of Leicester, and King’s College London on ‘The UK and the Changing Character of Conflict and Intervention’ took place at the University of Birmingham. This ESRC funded workshop comprised a series of interesting panels with a range of speakers discussing Global Strategic Trends, the Future Operating Environment, the Changing Character of Conflict, and UK Defence’s Role in the Future.

Under the banner of Global Strategic Trends the group listened to a fascinating presentation on the ways in which we can expect our world to change over the coming years, and the potential impact on security and defence. This presentation reflected upon: the potential impact of globalisation, increased and diverse migration, the ‘youth bulge’ in some areas of the world and the simultaneous impact of many ageing populations, gender imbalances, the impact of population growth on food, water and other resources, the role of technology (in environmental degradation and in preventing/reversing it), increasing use of robots (military and civilian), changes in attitudes to religion and the role of the state. The presentation concluded with an assessment of the likely future trends in conflict, the likelihood that it will endure, but that a diversification of the means of conducting conflict and the components involved will make for a changing environment.

The first panel included brief presentations from Profs. Alice Hills, Stefan Wolff, and Paul Jackson on future operating environments followed by a series of questions and answers. The panellists discussed the impact of increased urbanization on military operations, the complexity of navigating these situations and defence attitudes to operating in these environments. The theme of complexity was further drawn out in a consideration of the impact of ‘who’ is engaging in future conflict, their identities, motivations and the different understandings of what is or is not ‘rational’ acting. The UK’s role in ‘choosing’ a side was considered, and the need to balance pragmatism against the ideal outcome of complex conflicts. The need to address the marginalization of groups and individuals was identified, as was the wide range of motivations for getting involved in conflicts which require understanding of the situation and perspective of those individuals on the ground. Engaging with these various groups, it was noted, requires more than a military approach, but the inclusion of NGOs and a range of government departments.

The speakers for the second panel, on the changing character of conflict, were Prof. David Galbreath, Dr Wali Aslam and Dr Andrew Futter. The discussion moved to the impact of science and technology, how the speed of communication will challenge traditional notions of command and control and network centric warfare. The discussion then moved to an assessment of the British drone programme, the way it is perceived and the possibility of a different, distinctly British doctrine for its use. Finally, in this section, the need for a more detailed debate around British nuclear deterrence and Trident was considered, including an assessment of the barriers to a long-term perspective on this issue. The need for strategic thinking was highlighted and the key areas of military/technology, normative/conceptual, and political/operational associated topics were discussed. Additionally, the interaction between the role of conventional weapons and nuclear weapons was drawn out for consideration.

The final panel of the day was forward looking at ‘Defence’s role in the future’, with the panellists: Dr Laura Cleary, Mr Justin Morris and Dr Matthew Harries. This panel considered the limitations of existing doctrine and the need for an assessment of future skill areas and training needs. With a particular focus on defence engagement (DE), the panel considered the aims of DE, the associated training and educational needs, and how DE fits into the overall strategic and political aims of the defence forces. The value of institutional memory was highlighted and a possible framework for future thinking was outlined. The panel then moved on to consider the impact of the wars in Iraq and Afhganistan on the British public’s appetite to engage in conflicts overseas. The implications of the political make up of government and the possible outcome of the next British election were outlined in relation to willingness to undertake interventions, and specifically, perspectives on the responsibility to protect (R2P). The day closed with the panel discussion on the future role of deterrence and compellance (nuclear and conventional). The impact of defence cuts was considered in light of UK strategic aims in this area and the political considerations (in relation to British identity) of cuts to conventional forces were highlighted.

The delegates were provided with opportunities to closely question the expert panellists on their presentations and associated issues, providing a lively and engaging debate on these pressing defence issues.

Image source: UK Ministry of Defence

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