By Julian Lewis

Journal of the Royal United Services Institute, vol.156, no.2 – April/May 2011

Steven Jermy: Strategy for Action – Using Force Wisely in the 21st Century, Knightstone Publishing, 2011, 352 pp, £9.99 (ISBN: 978-1-908134-00-4)

When the United Kingdom was fighting for its life in global conflicts, the political objectives were easy to identify – first, survival; second, victory. The context of the struggle had been set by the aggressive behaviour of the country’s enemies. Political leaders and military practitioners determined the priorities which must be met in order to achieve these goals, and it was fairly easy to distinguish between overall or grand strategy and operational and tactical planning. In the limited wars of today, however, these distinctions are harder to discern.

Sometimes there is an obvious objective, as in the Falklands, where Steven Jermy flew from HMS Invincible during the campaign to liberate the islands. Even then, there were wider ramifications: it would be pleasing to think that, somewhere in Whitehall, a Great Strategic Brain anticipated that a successful reassertion of British sovereignty would ultimately lead to the junta’s removal, though one is inclined to doubt it. Nevertheless, the objective was clear and, despite the risks, a campaign could be tailored to achieve it.

This sense of clarity, Jermy maintains, was missing in the Afghan environment when he arrived in May 2007 and it was similarly lacking in Whitehall when he returned from Kabul in January 2008. Certainly, there was no shortage of "raging debates", but these were about tactical issues "such as equipment and the number of boots on the ground". No one at the top had stood back, contemplated the scene, envisaged a target outcome and transmitted that goal – and the means of achieving it – to the military machine.

Indeed, this was a task which the British, as junior partners, were bound to find beyond them, operating as they did on a strictly regional basis. It could only be carried out at the highest level of the ISAF coalition, where the United Kingdom is represented but where the strategic aim to stabilise Afghanistan has superseded the original goal of eliminating it as a breeding ground for international terrorism.

Limited conflicts which we choose to enter are bound to have a greater political dimension than wars of national survival which are thrust upon us. Jermy’s working definition, therefore, is one of "politico-military" strategy – rather than purely military strategy – which he defines as

"a rational course of action that uses state power to achieve political objectives in the face of violent opposition".

He recognises that the word "strategy" has become "thoroughly and unhelpfully diluted" through overuse in many contexts.

In particular, concepts of strategy have been taken up by the corporate sector, then bandied about by “offering back to us the residue of the ideas that the corporate theorists had stolen from us in the first place – and charging a pretty price for the privilege”. The term has come to mean “everything and anything to everyone and anyone”, and there is simply not enough thinking about how strategy can best be made and what the hallmarks of a superior strategy may be.

Here are his eight characteristic features of such a strategy: a clearly described political objective, purposefully sought; an explanation of the nature of the political struggle into which one is entering; maintenance of the initiative and an element of surprise; a single, central idea, or group of ideas underpinned by a rationale; guidance on timing and priorities, as a basis for campaign planning; a capability of being explained simply; a capacity to involve and enfold the principal forces at work; and – unsurprisingly – practicability in terms of time, place and available resources.

This final element Jermy’s narrative hammers home repeatedly. His own objective is the creation of a text to make it more likely that strategies are produced which form the basis of practical action. All too often (and one sees this in documents like the recent National Security Strategy) there is little of substance to be divined from supposed strategies that are little more than generalities. If we are not clear about what we wish to achieve, then we will fail to design a strategy to achieve it.

Yet, the analysis is not confined to the formulation and assessment of concepts. Processes and people are also integral to success. Thus, applying Jermy’s dicta, one wonders whether the high turnover of commanders in Afghanistan aids strategic continuity, and indeed whether the sidelining of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, in favour of a chain of command from the Prime Minister to the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Chief of Joint Operations, aids a balanced inter-Service approach.

Steven Jermy has compressed an immense amount of conceptual and historical knowledge into a narrative which is as challenging as it is outspoken. Yet, he never overlooks the human factor: the lesson which he describes as

"probably more important than all others ... that, ultimately, it’s all about people ... hard thinking by talented people is the cornerstone of strategic success".

Reading this book is an exercise in hard thinking – and it is to be hoped that many talented people will take the trouble to do so and to benefit from its wisdom.

Julian Lewis MP is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Defence Studies, Department of War Studies, King’s College London