Joining the dots in the British military

An Army Air Corps Apache aboard the Royal Navy's HMS Ark Royal. © UK Defence Image Database

By Brigadier Ben Barry, Senior Fellow for Land Warfare

‘The glue that helps bind together’ the UK army, navy and air force; that was how Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach described the new Joint Forces Command (JFC) that formed under his leadership this week. Peach’s new 30,000-strong joint command is designed to better support current operations and help prepare the UK military for future wars through greater levels of integration, including ensuring that lessons learned on operations are applied quickly.

By the end of the Second World War UK forces led the world in joint operations. But afterwards this lead was not sustained. For example, despite the lessons of the 1982 Falklands War, by the time of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, British standards of air–land integration had fallen behind those of the US. The Iraq and Afghan wars were urgent wake-up calls. During these and NATO operations in Libya, there have been ever-increasing amounts of joint integration and cooperation between all three UK forces.

As identified in The Military Balance 2012, the JFC comes out of Lord Levene’s independent Defence Reform report of 2011. This concluded that important joint military capabilities and functions – such as medical services, training and education, intelligence and cyber abilities – were ‘not organised and managed as coherently or effectively as they could be’, as they had ‘generally not been seen as core to single service outputs’ and therefore ‘not given sufficient priority’.

Despite its identical title, this new JFC is very different from the now disbanded US Joint Forces Command, which focused on transforming the capabilities of all four US services. This is a genuine innovation, which brings together many of the three services’ joint assets into one central entity, including:

  • Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ)
  • Permanent joint operating bases in Gibraltar, Cyprus, Diego Garcia and the South Atlantic islands
  • Deployable high readiness Joint Force HQ and Joint Force Logistics HQ
  • Directorate of Special Forces (itself a joint command of special forces drawn from all UK forces)
  • Defence Academy
  • Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre
  • Defence Intelligence and the new Defence Cyber Operations Group
  • Surgeon General’s HQ and the new Joint Medical Command

Only one other country, Australia, has a similar grouping of joint military assets, so many other militaries will be watching what the UK is doing with great interest. The direct operational chain of command from the chief of the defence staff to the PJHQ and special forces remains intact. He and the chiefs of staff of the three services have gone out of their way to welcome the Joint Forces Command. Speaking at the IISS in London in January, British Army chief General Sir Peter Wall said: ‘We shall be forging a close relationship with the newly formed Joint Forces Command, another defence-reform innovation, which will be the proponent and conscience for joint coherence across the board, as well as for critical joint enablers such as intelligence and information systems and surveillance.’

Given this support, the initiative will probably succeed.


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