Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Commodore Steven Jermy RN (ST 05)


Events, and Her Majesty’s Government’s actions, in Libya suggest that the UK has still not recovered its ability to think and act strategically in pursuit of the national interest. Although, at the time of writing, the campaign appears to be approaching—with the death of Gadaffi—a positive conclusion, this is very possibly more to do with good luck than with good strategy. Furthermore, whilst the civil war may be close to its conclusion, the stability phase is just begun, and its outcome is by no means clear. Luck—good and bad—very often plays an important role in operations and war, and we should naturally be prepared to ride good luck. But equally, we should also work to understand how to improve our strategy-making and, thus, our overall strategic performance.


1. I, Commodore Steven Jermy RN, am a recently retired naval officer, with a particular interest in strategic-thinking and strategy-making. My service career spanned carrier aviation, ship command and high level staff appointments and I served: at the tactical level, including flying from HMS INVINCIBLE in the Falklands War; at the operational level, deploying in command to the Bosnia and Kosovo crises; at the strategic level, including as Principal Staff Officer to the Chief of Defence Staff and as Strategy Director in the British Embassy in Afghanistan.

2. Since retiring, I have published the book Strategy for Action: Using Force wisely in the 21st Century, which seeks to improve the way in which strategy is made and, thus, the way force is used in pursuit of the national interest.

3. I judge that, whilst recent progress in Libya seems positive, there are likely difficult months ahead and, more importantly for the Select Committee, there are key strategy-making lessons to be learned, based on our experience to date.

4. The lessons are apparent in five inter-related areas: first, our ability to analyse the political context; second, our ability to identify and pursue a coherent political objective, calculated in relation to the national interest; third, our ability to create and execute strategy to deliver an identified political objective; fourth, the consequences of the lack of a higher level British foreign policy or grand strategy and institutional competency in Whitehall in strategic-thinking and strategy-making; fifth, the implications, based on these lessons and my own research, for the way in which we might improve our strategy-making capacity.

Understanding the Political Context

5. It is not clear, based on the evidence of the Government’s actions, that the political analysis of the situation in Libya, prior to the West’s intervention, was sufficiently comprehensive, nor contained the insights, to support the planning of a properly scoped operation. What such an analysis ought first to have shown was that the situation in Libya was quite different to, for example, that in the early days of the Afghanistan intervention; and that this would, in turn, have implications for the utility of air power.

6. In Afghanistan, there was a simmering civil war, prior to the intervention, between two reasonably evenly matched (in military terms) opponents—the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. And thus, when air power, properly directed by Western Special Forces, was used to support the Northern Alliance, the results were quick and decisive.

7. Whereas in Libya, the uprising was at its very earliest stage, with a significant imbalance between the opponents—Gaddafi’s security forces and the rebels—in military capability. Given the lack of an obvious military entity to give the uprising early military power, it was reasonably foreseeable that the uprising would take time to gain military capability and, thus, success. And, by deduction, it was similarly foreseeable that the intervention was likely to be of an extended duration. And, on the evidence of both statements and actions, HMG in particular and the International Coalition in general, appeared surprised, and then concerned, by the length of time needed to defeat Gaddafi’s forces.

8. This weakness in political analysis appears to being playing into HMG’s understanding of the current context, post the death of Gaddafi and the defeat of the majority of his security forces. HMG’s statements and actions give the impression that the National Transitional Council (NTC) is a coherent regime in waiting—as evidenced by Britain’s, and others’, international recognition of the NTC as Libya’s legitimate government.

9. Whereas informal reporting and, latterly, the unwillingness of rebel forces and local defenders to give up arms suggests that the NTC has, as yet, uncertain legitimacy and fragmentary power, as demonstrated by its inability, at the time of writing, to extend its writ throughout Libya.

10. Furthermore, the second significant difference, between the Afghanistan and Libyan campaigns, is the absence of Western troops on the ground. The consequence of this, and the NTC’s limited ability to impose its will, is that, notwithstanding a very significant investment of Western military resource, we have precious little—if indeed any—control over how events will now pan out.

11. Informal reporting suggests that HMG believes that its Stability Unit will provide a different and, hoped-for, better alternative to troops on the ground. But the reality is that the Unit’s tiny personnel footprint, the relative lack of deployable money (when compared to that which has been released to the NTC through the relaxing of sanctions), and the absence of any British land forces presence mean that HMG now has no effective capacity to influence events on the ground.

12. In the long view, this is very probably a good thing, in that responsibility for Libya’s future will rest ultimately with Libyans. But in the short term, there needs to be some Government thought to, and recognition of this lack of control. And there also probably needs to be some thought given to Government policy, based on the different short-term scenarios that could play out in Libya.

13. An optimistic scenario sees a general increase in stability, widespread acceptance of the NTC as it gains legitimacy, and measured progress toward some form of political system that results in representative government, acceptable to the general population.

14. But two pessimistic scenarios are also plausible.

15. In the first, the weakness of the NTC’s power and an unwillingness for armed groups to accede to its writ, leads to a sustained period of insecurity which could include, for example, significant revenge killings of: former Gaddafi forces; Gaddafi-aligned tribes; Sub-Saharan African migrant workers.

16. The British Government would need to consider its position in the event of a request, by people attacked by NTC forces under such a scenario, for the use of British air power, against NTC forces, to “stop slaughter” given that this remains the stated objective of Britain’s intervention.

17. In the second, Islamic extremists gain an upper hand. This could because they are able, in the same way as the Taliban, to deliver local security when the TNC cannot. Or it could be as a result of a democratic process.

18. In either scenario, the victory would look pyrrhic, at best, but might also lead to increasing threat to British interests, at least in the short term.

Identifying the Political Objective

19. HMG (together with the French Government) may have fallen into the same trap as the Blair administration did in Iraq, in that military actions suggest that it has pursued a political objective of regime change, which is rather different to UN authorised objective of protecting civilians (or, as routinely stated by the Prime Minister, “stopping slaughter”). The remarks of the Foreign Secretary have, at times, come close to admitting this point.

20. Of course, the apparent success of the NTC against Gaddafi’s forces allows for some short-term post hoc justification of this approach. Be that as it may, long-term political and strategic costs may result.

21. First, key non-Western countries—particularly China and Russia—who are uncomfortable with the idea of interference by the international community in internal activities of sovereign states may, in the future, be less willing to sanction UNSCRs argued for genuine humanitarian reasons.

22. Second, the West in general, and Britain and France in particular, are now open to the charge of political hypocrisy, should we choose not to intervene to “stop slaughter” in the future. We have been saved from this prospect in Syria, so far, thanks to the Syrian people’s desire for no external assistance. But were, for example, Bahraini or Yemeni uprisings to seek our support, or the Syrian people change their minds, we could find ourselves in a difficult political position, and if we refused such requests then it would be impossible to avoid the charge of hypocrisy.

23. The much more fundamental problem, for Britain at least, is the lack of a compelling argument to say why, and to what degree, the pursuit of either the stated or tacit political objectives for the Libyan operation are in the British national interest.

24. This is important because, without an understanding of how the political objective contributes to the national interest, it is difficult to decide what price we should be prepared to pay—in blood and treasure—in its pursuit. And without an understanding of the blood and treasure—ie the resources—we are prepared to deploy and expend, it is difficult, if not impossible, to shape the right strategy to offer the best chances of delivering success.

Lack of a Coherent Strategy

25. An early lack of military strategy was evident from an examination of Government and Coalition statements, all of which focused on the creation of a no-fly zone—note that a no-fly zone is a term of military doctrine, not a strategy.

26. The imposition of such a zone requires that just two things be achieved: first, a condition of Coalition air superiority over opposing air forces; second, the neutralisation of enemy air defences, so as to enable one’s own aircraft to fly over the zone without interference. A no-fly zone does not, however, require the destruction of enemy ground forces.

27. Of course, UNSCR 1973 also authorises the use of “all necessary means”—ie armed force—to protect civilians. In the case of Libya, this provides a reasonable, albeit not wholly watertight, argument to support the use of force to protect civilians from the impact of offensive operations by Gaddafi’s forces against, for example, rebel-held areas.

28. However, the use of NATO air power to support offensive operations by rebel forces against those of Gaddafi falls outside UNSCR 1973’s authority, and thus do not appear to comply with international law. This, too, is further evidence of a lack of strategy in that had a coherent strategy been shaped early, then a key consideration in that shaping would have been that force be used within the framework of authority provided by UNSCR.

29. The lack of strategy in military operations reduces the likelihood of success and increases the chances of error.

30. There are a number of related risks, of which three are germane. First, political and military decisions must be made on the hoof ie “muddling through”—with a heightened chance that they will be wrong. Second, there will be no strategic framework against which to measure progress. Third, military personnel will necessarily be strategically rudderless, which increases the pressure on commanders and may also undermine morale, as personnel sense the lack of overall strategic direction.

Foreign Policy and Grand Strategy

31. The final—and perhaps most important—lesson is to do with the absence of an overarching foreign policy or, in its harder-edged form, grand strategy, with which to address the Arab Spring and the broader issue of extremist Islam in the Maghreb and Middle East.

32. This lack manifests itself in the Libyan operation, most obviously in our continuing inability to distinguish between those crises that, because they occur in key strategic areas, bear critically on the British national interest, and those that do not. It seems clear, for example, that events in the Maghreb, whether or not they may be morally reprehensible, will bear less critically on Britain’s national interest than those in the Gulf or Suez.

33. And yet, whilst already heavily engaged in Afghanistan, Britain elected to engage in Libya and use most of its remaining military contingency, thus loosing its ability, at a time of unusual historical volatility, to act in these critical strategic areas.

34. This is perhaps because of the lack any coherent regional policy or grand strategy against which to balance the advantages of intervening in Libya against the disadvantages of critically prejudicing our ability to act elsewhere, in more important strategic areas. This looks to be further evidence of a worry, already explored by the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) in 2010, of the inability of Westminster and Whitehall—especially Whitehall—to think and act strategically, and suggests the PASC’s recommendations have yet to be acted upon. This is the most serious of all the concerns illustrated during the Libyan operation, and merits the closest scrutiny, again, by the PASC.

Improving our Strategy-making Capacity

35. Accepting that results may well turn out positively in this campaign, we would nevertheless do well to think through the strategy-making lessons, and whether or not there were things that we could, in the future, do better. Two specific areas would be worth further investigation: first, our strategy making processes; second, the way in which the people who make strategy in Britain—politicians, military officers, diplomats, and civil servants—are selected and prepared for strategy-making.

36. Processes—given that the affairs of the National Security Council are, quite rightly, secret, it is impossible to know the processes that are used for strategy-making, but my research of 250 years of strategy-making suggests that a structured strategy-making process, in which strategic-thinking is intelligently framed, and strategy-making conducted in a disciplined and intellectually rigorous way, significantly improve one’s chance of successful strategy-making.

37. People—ultimately one’s success—or otherwise—in strategy-making is critically dependent upon one’s strategy-makers—politicians, military officers, diplomats and civil servants—and their capacity for strategic-thinking and strategy-making. As such, our chances of success will be improved by, first, selecting the right people and, second, preparing them so as to ensure that they are fitted with the right theoretical and historical knowledge. Political selection is a matter for the Prime Minister, but for our military officers, diplomats, and civil servants, we must ensure that their promotion systems privilege strategic-thinking capacity and strategy-making capacity.

38. But preparation, through training and education, also matters. It is a matter of concern, to me at least, that with the single exception of the Chief of Defence Staff, not a single member of Britain’s National Security Council—political or official—has been formally trained or educated in strategy. This seems to me to be a dangerously amateur approach, given that the Council directs matters that are self-evidently critical to the national interest and, on occasion, shape the fate of nations.

October 2011

Prepared 20th April 2012