British Doctrine in the Gulf

Tank crews with the British 7th Armoured Brigade stand atop their Challenger tanks after a simulated battle in the dusty eastern Saudi Arabian desert, Saturday, Dec. 1, 1990 in Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Diether Endlicher)

Tank crews with the British 7th Armoured Brigade stand atop their Challenger tanks after a simulated battle in the dusty eastern Saudi Arabian desert, Saturday, Dec. 1, 1990 in Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Diether Endlicher)


British commanders in the Gulf were clearly very aware of doctrinal issues. Major-General Smith had been a director of the Higher Command and Staff Course, while a number of his senior commanders had been students on the course (including the commander of 7 Armoured Brigade, and the commander of the artillery group, Brigadiers Cordingley and Durie respectively). This gave commanders not only a shared intellectual base to work from, but a shared sense of the importance of doctrine and of thinking about how to fight the war. Doctrine and thinking about war were considered important by commanders in the Gulf, while after the war attention was paid to whether or not the doctrine had worked. What is also interesting is that where doctrinal inadequacies were identified, the response was to improve that doctrine rather than question the worth of doctrine.

The Gulf War also saw an attempt to fight a fully integrated, all-arms battle. When this was not achieved (for example with the integration of the deep artillery battle to the close battle) the fault was ascribed to technology rather than institutional reservations. Less successful was inter-service cooperation, especially attempts to integrate the land and air battles. Mitigating factors here included the use of American aircraft to support British land operations, and the lack of time in which to develop a joint doctrine. Nevertheless, Smith clearly attempted to fight a battle where all elements were integrated into a synergistic and coherent whole, and where all-arms cooperation functioned smoothly and efficiently.

Although the British were themselves unable to fight at what would normally be considered the operational level since only a single British division was deployed, they were able to fight as part of a force working at the operational level. A British staff officer working with CENTCOM for example commented that the operational vision of British commanders enabled them to cope with the scale of operations and influence planning much more than if they had operated at the tactical level. Further, Smith’s divisional concept was a coherent plan whereby the two brigades and artillery group operated together rather than independently of each other, and the actions of each were seen as mutually supporting and as part of a grander design. In particular the manner in which the deep battle was to be integrated with the close suggests an awareness of the operational level of war. What is important is the emphasis placed by Smith upon fighting the division rather than simply a succession of firefights involving battle groups, and upon the development of a coherent concept of operations. All of this suggested a movement away from a tactical focus towards more of an operational-level focus. Similarly, the way in which Smith fought the division reflects a clear movement away from a preference for an attritional, set-piece approach to battle and towards one of manoeuvre. Manoeuvre was not simply the rapid movement of mass against an operationally static enemy, but the ability to act in a flexible manner. In other words it was as much an attitude of mind as a physical capacity. Therefore even though 1st Armoured Division advanced rapidly, taking the enemy by surprise and defeating them by manoeuvre as well as by weight of fire, what was also important was the command flexibility best seen in the exploitation beyond the initial target line (phase line SMASH at the Wadi al Batin) towards the main Kuwait City-Basra highway. Smith’s emphasis upon seizing the initiative and maintaining a high tempo of operations was matched by his ability and willingness to act and react quickly, moving formations to exploit opportunities and changing his concept of operations when necessary.

The doctrinal reforms initiated by Bagnall and subsequently developed by the Army were seen to have been vindicated in the 1990–1 Gulf War. In particular the emphasis upon manoeuvre warfare was widely seen to have been a resounding success (although the fact that the desert was particularly suitable for fast mobile operations was also noted). Nevertheless, a number of deficiencies in doctrine were identified. First, manoeuvre warfare had increased the tempo of the battlefield, not only in terms of mobility but also in terms of decision making and reaction times, but the British Army had had little practical experience of handling large formations under such conditions. Much of its training in Germany and Canada had been at battle group level, not divisional. Second, although the British Army had attempted to move away from rigid and constricting orders towards a more flexible and mission-oriented style of command, these were not fully reflected in battlefield drills, which still tended to be rigid and formalistic. Third, fatigue proved to be a major problem, and more so than expected. The division was continuously engaged for sixty-six hours of the 100-hour war, with no respite for night or bad weather lest the momentum and tempo of operations be disrupted. By the end of the war troops were exhausted, and it appeared doubtful whether they could have continued high-tempo operations for much longer. It is tempting to suggest that the lack of a third brigade was at least partly responsible for this, keeping pressure on the front two brigades, but the manner in which Smith fought the division, using the brigades sequentially, appears to have dealt with some if not all of the problems created by the lack of a third brigade. Rather, fatigue was a product of the tempo of manoeuvre operations, of the need to maintain momentum and to stay inside the enemy’s decision making cycle. Doctrine therefore needed to take account of these demands. Fourth, logistics doctrine had not been developed to match the requirements of manoeuvre warfare, and much had to be developed on an ad hoc basis in theatre. Fifth, joint doctrine with the air force was unsatisfactory, particularly as regards cooperation between artillery and close air support. Although a system of liaison officers was used, this could not compensate for the lack of joint doctrine. The impression is one of ad hoc measures rather than prearranged, well thought out and extensively practised drills. As Brigadier Durie, commander of the artillery group, commented:

Had the Iraqi resistance been stiffer, the lack of common doctrine, standard operating procedures and drills between the land and air forces could have been significant, and with more painful consequences.

This is ironic given the emphasis placed on land-air cooperation in formal statements on doctrine throughout the 1980s. It is evident that good intentions were not always realised in working practices. Although some of this may be explained by the fact that American not British aircraft provided much of the cover for British land forces, the failure to develop adequate procedures with the Americans suggests that the priority given to establishing adequate levels of cooperation in the Gulf did not match that given to it in the theory. Finally, the emphasis upon manoeuvre developed in peacetime had tended to obscure the importance of winning the firefight in war. Operation Granby brought home the importance of winning the firefight – or what was identified as the need for a ‘violent storm’. As the Army’s own account of operations comments, ‘movement does not win battles unless it is used as a means of delivering firepower’. What these ‘lessons’ reveal, however, is that the British Army reinforced the theory of the 1980s with the practice of the Gulf War: manoeuvre warfare was seen to be vindicated, and the lessons learned concerned the better execution of such operations rather than fundamental problems suggesting a return to a more attritional style of warfare.


So how well did the later Cold War decades prepare the Army for the 1990–1 Gulf War? The answer, unsurprisingly perhaps, is mixed, but on the whole more positive than negative. What is also important to note is how well the Army believed the Cold War had prepared it both for the 1990–1 Gulf War and beyond. Here the answer is rather more positive. With the exception of certain discrete elements – such as the requirement to develop a strategic lift capacity – the Army did not see Granby as demonstrating the need for fundamental change. The emphasis upon human qualities whilst not ignoring machines, a key feature of the Army during the Cold War, was seen to have been vindicated. Praise for the quality and professionalism of its troops was widely echoed in the UK, whereas equipment failings were more heavily criticised. By inference, success was possible with deficient machinery, but contingent upon high-quality troops. Training regimes did not wholly prepare the Army for high intensity combat, but did provide a basis which could be built upon very effectively. The perceived utility of Britain’s armed forces was reinforced, while their value, which had been questioned with the end of the Cold War, had been re-established. Special forces had once again received considerable attention and had performed valuable if not perhaps critical roles. Contingency planning had been poor, but the flexibility and adaptability of the Army – something Cold War insurgencies and before that imperial policing had impressed upon the Army – had been invaluable. And the new manoeuvrist doctrine had underpinned the way in which 1st Armoured Division had fought so successfully. The success of 1st Armoured Division cannot of course be divorced from the wider coalition operation and in particular US ground and air power; but the fact that the small British division (just about) held its own with the best army in the world at this form of warfare, and was able to play an important role in a huge and hugely successful operation, suggests that at some very basic level the Cold War had prepared the Army well for Operation Granby.

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