Geography, Geostrategy and Military Operations

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by General Sir Rupert Smith

Unlike the majority of my school fellows, I enjoyed geography. Apart from the generally held opinion that the subject was for ‘thick’ boys, nobody took A levels in geography unless that was all they could do; I could not understand their aversion, not that I took a Geography A Level. Perhaps, with hindsight, I had been fortunate at an earlier age and had seen rudimentary geography in use. Since those days I have found the geography I learnt as a school boy of great value in the practice of the profession of arms. The ability to navigate and analyse the terrain for tactical advantage is obviously important and taught in military training establishments. At more senior levels the use of the discipline as an element of Geo-Strategy and Geo-Politics is not taught although it was as a senior commander that I took the greatest value from the geography I learnt at school.

As a small boy I had travelled with my parents, my father was in the RAF, taking long car journeys in late 1940s early 50’s Europe, and we sailed whenever my father could borrow a boat. Although not fully competent to use them or understanding of all that they displayed I came to understand the significance of maps, charts and the compass.  I attended a number of schools sometimes for only a term or two, no syllabus seemed to be the same except Geography, where we coloured maps, learnt the names of capitals, the major rivers, and mountain ranges. In some cases, I had travelled through or in the country concerned. In matching my memory of the place with the map I began to comprehend that the geography of the place explained the difference of that place to others.

Later, at boarding school and with a text book that I recall was called something like an Atlas of Imperial Geography, these exercises were developed further. We gained a rudimentary understanding of geology, of climate and how glaciers and river systems develop. We studied a region’s natural resources, agriculture and industries, the trade routes between the regions and the economies that depended on them. I have memories of one particular exercise when we studied the Kariba Dam project in the Zambezi valley between the then North and South Rhodesia.  Apart from examining the course and nature of the Zambezi and calculating the volume of water that would be stored behind the dam we considered the possible consequences of creating the dam. We discussed the disadvantages and advantages of the project to animal life, agriculture, mining and industry, and whether these pros and cons were the same for those upstream of the barrier in contrast to those below it, and whether those displaced by the rising waters would benefit as much as those in more distant the towns. The knowledge gained from this instruction gave me the foundation of my understanding of what I learnt much later came to be called physical and human geography. Furthermore, one came to see that such geography altering events as the building of the Kariba Dam had political and economic consequences.

In much the same way historical events were sometimes explained with reference to geographic factors: perhaps to explain the political or strategic significance of the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus, or the Nile Delta and the Suez Canal. I do not think anyone was suggesting that the geography of a particular place in itself caused the political confrontation or war, but rather it was those factors that shaped the event and on occasions served to identify the objective or contentious issue. 

I recall one exercise or class project that consumed a great deal of what we considered was our free time, we were asked something like: “For what geographical reasons is Belgium known as the ‘Cockpit of Europe’, and why is it in Britain’s interest to have the Scheldt Estuary in the Netherlands while the port of Antwerp is in Belgium”?—assume 1000 men occupy —and consume —per day etc”  After much work assessing east west communications across the Rhine, it became apparent that the only axis capable of carrying and sustaining a large army was that through the Low Countries. The other two: that from Metz to either Koblenz or Saarbruken, or east from Belfort into the head waters of the Rhine, were too constricted and the potential for forage was limited. It took a lot of prodding to get us to see the answer to the second half of the exercise. Eventually we grasped that it was a consequence of the Industrial Revolution and the development of steam powered ships. Thus, for Britain the westerly prevailing winds no longer defined the threat axis, Antwerp became “a pistol pointing at the head of England”. So, as the Belgians revolted and formed a state, it suited the British that the Belgian border with the Netherlands was such that both states had to be allied or conquered for Antwerp to be the mounting port for an invasion of England. In 1839 to increase the probability of this not happening Britain with other states guaranteed Belgium’s neutrality. In 2014 we had the centenary of this guarantee being presented.

In the background of my childhood was a great uncle, Professor Frank Debenham, we visited him occasionally in Cambridge. Once or twice, I went there for some of the school holidays when my parents were abroad. He had been on Scott’s last expedition as a geologist and I enjoyed being taken round the Scott Polar Institute that he had co-founded in 1920. Staying with him was always fun and amongst other things his explanations of the techniques of triangulation and astronavigation have stayed with me to this day.  With hindsight I realize that he too was trying to get me to consider geographical factors when seeking to understand something or other; such as what it was about a place that shaped and forged the culture, economy and life of the people that lived there. I remember one long walk when we discussed at length, “why do Eskimos and not Britons live in Greenland?” Such analysis very quickly disabused you of any idea of one culture being superior to another, although perhaps one or the other could be more fortunate in their circumstances. 

The more practical aspects of my education and childhood came into immediate use during my training and on being commissioned.  The frequent use of maps and charts and the analysis of their content meant that I could see a map or chart in 3D; the shape of the ground, its folds and slopes, was evident at a glance. Apart from making navigation easier this ability was an advantage tactically. Battlefield tactics are intimately associated with the ground, at small unit level the depth of a ditch or whether a slope is convex or concave can alter the balance between life and death. Furthermore, my knowledge of astro-navigation was of value when we were deployed in Libya. Where we used sun compasses for direction and theodolites to fix our position. For during those early years of my military career, I served in all five continents, in the final stages of what some historians are calling ‘The Retreat from Empire’, and, while not understanding matters in this way at the time, began to play a very minor part in the worlds daily geopolitical drama. 

This experience was crystallized when it came to study for the promotion exam. This programme of education to qualify you for promotion to Major and for selection for the Staff College involved attending three-day courses at various universities. Amongst other matters we were introduced to the ideas of geo-politics; this sought to explain the world of the Cold War in terms of economies, military power, domestic politics and international diplomacy.  To a large degree the geographic factors were considered as a given, stable and immutable; the Cold War world was a frozen world.

At about the same time as I was preparing for the promotion exam the battalion I was posted to deployed on operations to Northern Ireland. The operation in support of the civil power had been underway for about two years, and the battalion had already done one tour in the Province. It was during this and three subsequent tours that my understanding of human geography and its significance in the conduct of military operations began to develop. 

In this campaign the tactics of our opponent, the IRA, were those of the terrorist and guerrilla fighter; they remained concealed amongst the population.  So, to begin to see what might be about to threaten us we had first to understand what was normal and routine for the population as a whole. To understand what was normal, to have some foundation against which to analyse the behaviour of a person or groups of people, one needed a map or model of the society in question—mapping the pattern of life. 

This realization developed slowly. We started by plotting incidents on a map, such as bombings or shootings, and the time they occurred and then we would look to see whether or not a pattern resulted. For example, we plotted shootings and it became apparent that in most cases the firing point was a house with access to a road parallel to the one the target was on, to give an escape route, and the incidents generally occurred in the afternoon. We planned our patrols accordingly, placing patrols in parallel and increasing our patrols in the mornings, but shootings in the forenoon did not increase. Why? Were the gunmen in bed or what? 

I recall another example: I was plotting the bombings of shops in Belfast, looking for a pattern in the type and or location of the shops, when I noticed that these events never occurred on alternate Thursdays. It took me nearly a day to discover the Thursdays in question were those when unemployment benefit was paid out. Later we established the main reason we were not shot at in the mornings was that the weapon had to be moved from its safe hiding place and this was done best when plenty of people were about. Both examples helped to shape the human geographic map or model, which was slowly built up on the foundation of the routine and events of everyday existence in the place in question. But what had to be remembered was that the model was never stable and that we, the Security Forces, were part of it. 

In 1980 I was sent to the newly independent Zimbabwe as, in effect, the commanding officer of a small advisory and training team. The three armies that had fought what I learnt to call ‘The Liberation Struggle’ were still at large; in Assembly Places in the case of the guerrilla armies of the Patriotic Front, while the ‘Former Rhodesian Army’ was in barracks. As a result of the Lancaster House Agreement, which had inter alia ended the war, they were all under a Joint Command.  Our task was to advise and help the Joint Commander to create a new Zimbabwe Army. The most urgent requirement was to prevent any drift back to armed violence and to bring all the weapons and ammunition under central control. There followed a most interesting and rewarding three years as we played our part in amalgamating the three armies, starting their training, including a Staff College, and introducing a demobilization scheme. I thought our role was to act as a catalyst for positive change and then to leave.

If we were to be credible our advice had to be thoroughly practical and be based in the context of the new Zimbabwe as its leaders understood it. To this end it was necessary to quickly understand the significant elements of the regions geography and grasp how that determined its history. Fortunately, my school’s Kariba Dam exercise gave me a small foundation on which to start.  Amongst other things this enquiry exposed the different geo-political narratives of those engaged. Firstly, there was the imperial and colonial Rhodesian narratives which were not as aligned as might be imagined, the difference leading to the Rhodesian’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Britain.  Then there was the Zimbabwean narrative in contrast to the Rhodesians, and this soon broke down into the tribal narratives of the Shona and Matabele.  Externally there were more narratives all more or less dissonant with each other: the South African, imperial, colonial and republican; Mozambique, revolutionary and Portuguese colonial: the Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, and Tanzania narratives all different and associated with different internal parties; and then those of the powers that backed the ‘Struggle’, Russia, China and North Korea.  Particularly in the case of the parties internal to Zimbabwe this enquiry was ‘work in progress’ as more information became available and I learnt to ask more searching questions.  

By examining these differing narratives, I found I could usually comprehend the view of one party or another, in so far as it was based on past events. I could be reasonably certain as to what issues would have to be resolved and the parameters of a probable outcome. However, as tensions between the tribally based political parties increased and the ruling party became more secure, I found I had to learn more. I turned to anthropology to understand the way different cultures might think about a matter. This reading was most useful. I leant how decisions were made in the cultures in question. I found I could predict with some certainty where in the institutional processes, all based on British culture, the new decision makers would either short circuit or ignore the process and not necessarily to disadvantage. Amongst other things I realized that the concept of ‘Her Majesties Loyal Opposition’ was incomprehensible in practical terms to many of those now in power and yet the process of government rested on the implicit assumption that his concept was understand and practiced by all.

I left Zimbabwe to command a battalion that served in Cyprus and Belize as well as the United Kingdom; geography and its subordinate disciplines continued to be of value. In late 1985 I went to Germany, first as the Chief of Staff of a Division and then as a Brigade Commander. Here I was part of the NATO forces deployed to deter and contain the Warsaw Pact and found myself playing a part in the long running geo-political drama of the Cold War, in fact, it turned out to be the final act.  

In the 1975, after some two years of patient negotiation, the Helsinki Accords were signed by the states of NATO and the Warsaw Pact. I expect I read about this but their significance escaped me, as did the stalling of the parallel talks over arms reduction, the Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions. However, ten years later at about the time of my arrival in Germany, the matter of arms reduction had begun to move, agreements to negotiate further were signed. By 1987 as the talks proceeded, we were hosting on our major exercises visitors from the Warsaw Pact armies as a confidence building measure and it was not long before we too were being invited to view their exercises. These negotiations led eventually to the signing of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe in 1990. By which time the Berlin Wall had fallen and revolutions had broken out in many of the states of the Warsaw Pact. 

I think our military visits by both NATO and the Warsaw Pact helped play a part in this process in two ways. The first was to fulfil their intention as confidence building measures which they did. The second effect was that the professional militaries of both sides came to meet, observe each other and discuss their profession. We saw as we drove around the exercises the armies and the society in which they operated, and carried the impressions home to inform others; the Iron Curtain had become porous. In addition, we bonded. I remember the first time I briefed some visiting observers I explained that my brigade had failed to cross completely some obstacle the night before and were dangerously exposed as a result. After the briefing two senior officers, one Polish the other Russian, took me to one side and explained that I must not declare mistakes as I had just done or I would never get promoted! Later in 1989 when I was the Deputy Commandant of the Army Staff College visiting my opposite numbers in Moscow, another confidence building event, I met the Russian again. “See”, he said as we shook hands, “you are still a brigadier”.

In 1990, promotion came and I was appointed to command 1st Armoured Division. Within ten days of taking up this position I was told to deploy to Saudi Arabia with my HQ, to command the division which was to be the British Army’s contribution to the US led coalition facing the Iraqis who had occupied Kuwait. Once again the disciplines of geographic analysis stood me in good stead, as did the tactics and techniques of my previous 30 years service. Kuwait was liberated and we were withdrawn back to Germany. At the time I and many others saw the Gulf War 90/91 as a culmination of everything we had trained for, and to a large extent and in its practicalities it was. 

But with hindsight it was the harbinger of a re-set in the geo-politics of the world. It was in this aftermath that the last decade of my service began. In late 1992 I started a new job at the Ministry of Defence, new to me and to the Ministry.  I was the Assistant Chief of Defence Staff (Operations and Security).  One of the lessons of the recent Gulf War was that there was a need for a single operations officer to coordinate the operations of the single services with other government departments. This activity and much more is now done by the Permanent Joint HQ at Northwood. On arrival I found my desk covered with files concerning the No Fly Zones established over North and South Iraq and the Balkans. The Balkans was to be the matter I dealt with the most during my time in the MOD and then in 1995 I was posted to Sarajevo to command the UN Protection Force or UNPROFOR.  

Yugoslavia was breaking up into its component parts and new Balkan states were being formed based on past history and ethnicity.  Generally, where there was an ethnic mix inter-ethnic violence followed.  Initially our focus was on Croatia where a substantial minority of Serbs had lived for centuries planted there by the Hapsburgs in the border region with the Ottoman Empire. The Serbs used the word Krajina to designate this area much as in medieval English a border region was called a March. When Croatia declared its independence in 1991 the Croatian Serbs declared themselves the Republic of Serbian Krajina. Fighting broke out between Croatian and Krajina Serb forces. A UN force, UNPROFOR, was deployed to protect the Serb areas, while peace negotiations proceeded. At this time after much debate the UK contributed a medical unit to this force. However, during 1992 Bosnia and Herzegovina, another new state, formed. Inter ethnic fighting on an even worse scale than that in Croatia took place and elements of UNPROFOR were redeployed to Sarajevo. In late 1992 the Security Council decided to reinforce UNPROFOR in Bosnia.  The UK decided to send a battle group  

Our policy both in the UK and in the International Community as a whole over the breakup of Yugoslavia seemed to be: to recognise the new states, such as Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, but not the new Serb states, such as the Republika Srpska in Bosnia or the Republic of Serbian Krajina. Then, as the Serb minority states continued to fight, with the active support of Serbia, to use the UN to ameliorate the consequences of the fighting and where possible keep the peace, although there was usually no peace to keep. Meanwhile a series of peace plans were proposed: first the Carrington-Cutileiro Plan, then the Vance–Owen Plan, then the Owen-Stoltenberg Plan; and when these had all failed a Contact Group (U.S., Russia, France, Britain, and Germany) was formed in late 1993. In late August 1994 the Contact Group Plan was rejected.  By this time NATO was conducting air operations over Bosnia and Herzegovina in an uneasy relationship with the UN and UNPROFOR. The implementation of our policy, such as it was, was weak and uncertain. It was all politics, usually the politics of the allies and their domestic politics, we were not thinking geographically or strategically.

As we agonised over what to do I explained in meeting after meeting that Bosnia and Herzegovina was landlocked, it traded into two navigations: the Adriatic, dominated by Croatia, and the Sava/Danube River system, dominated by Serbia. This geo-strategic fact meant that for Bosnia to have any meaningful independent existence it had to be able to trade into both navigations and thus be able to play Croatia off against Serbia and vice versa; and so, our strategy should seek to achieve this balance. Indeed, both Serbia and Croatia were backing their ethnic group in Bosnia so as to achieve an advantageous position relative to each other and to reduce Bosnia and Herzegovina to an irrelevance. It would be no good intervening to contain the fighting or, as we did eventually, to stop it, if we did not establish the conditions for Bosnia and Herzegovina to act independently thereafter.  It was frustratingly difficult to get anyone to act on this geostrategic argument or even to see its significance.  

The idea of UN Safe Areas was another concept without a firm grounding in geographical reality.  The areas in question were isolated in Bosnian Serb territory some distance from the front line and the ground made it easy for a defender to conceal himself from air observation and attack. Thus, to support the safe areas the UN would need the permission of the Serbs or to be able to fight their way into the area with supplies, air power alone was not a solution; the will and the forces to do this were absent. It was hoped that the small UN detachments supported by air power would by their presence deter attacks on the safe areas, but it was never going to prevent the Bosnians in the areas attacking out from within them. UNPROFOR had been placed in a position of being a hostage of one side and the shield of the other.

My time as Commander UNPROFOR in 1995 led to me try to understand the Serb and Bosnian strategies. My geostrategic and geopolitical analysis of the Bosnian Serb position in February/March of that year led me to what I called my ‘thesis’—or what I thought they would do. Of course, I could not prove my thesis and being a UN force there was no intelligence agency to collect information to prove it or not.  While the Bosnians and Serbs had strategies, the UN and NATO operations were being conducted in a political and strategic vacuum and nobody seemed interested in the thesis. Nevertheless, and with the benefit of hindsight, one can see events unfolding much as my analysis supposed. Although I had anticipated the ‘squeezing’ of the Safe Areas I had not anticipated the nadir of the collapse of the UN Safe Area of Srebrenica and the subsequent murder of some 8000 men; however, this atrocity proved to be a turning point.  

In the aftermath of Srebrenica decisions were made that led to NATO air attacks, the breaking of the siege of Sarajevo, Croatian forces invading Republika Srpska and the deployment of the American Richard Holbrook to negotiate initially a cease fire. By November 1995 the Dayton Peace Accords were signed. 

In November 1998 I was appointed Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, and in early 1999 we started the operation to force Milosevic, the President of Serbia, to withdraw his forces from the Serbian province of Kosovo.  Once again, we were intervening, this time without a UN mandate, and thus taking responsibility for a landlocked area; an area with four different states on its borders, whose infrastructure very largely bound it to Serbia and whose people were ethnically similar to only one of the bordering states, Albania, and that with by far the worst communication links. Although this was not acknowledged at the time, we were intervening to change the borders of the state of Serbia; as recall phrases like “this is not establishing a precedent” were being used when awkward questions were asked. In 2008 Kosovo declared its independence and this was recognized by some 100 other states including the US, UK and France.  Since 1945 it had been an accepted rule that borders stayed where they were; I do not think the long-term geopolitical consequences of breaking this principle in 1999 were considered at the time. Russia has justified its actions in Georgia and now Ukraine, in part at least, on the basis of the Kosovo intervention by NATO.  

In contrast to my Balkan experience my three years (96-98) as GOC Northern Ireland gave an example of great geopolitical courage. It was during my time in command that the Good Friday Agreement was signed in April 1998 and the long campaign against the IRA came to an end. In the agreement between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland the Irish agreed, subject to the agreement being ratified by referendum, to alter their constitution.  Since the founding of the State, the Constitution of Ireland had asserted a territorial claim over Northern Ireland, they agreed to remove this claim and in effect remove the principle plank of the Republican argument.

Nevertheless, on the evidence of the last decade of my service I think our ability to think geo-strategically has atrophied, whether we consider the performance in capitals or in the intergovernmental institutions they form.  What is more from my observation of our endeavours in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya I do not think we have got any better.

I think this parlous state of affairs in the institutions of governance is a consequence of the Cold War.  From 1945 or thereabouts the majority of governments have been able to assume a stable geo-strategic state—what mattered was the politics. Of course, the politics were vitally important but they were based on the safe assumption of a more or less stable geography and strategy. Generations of decision makers grew up and passed their responsibilities on to their juniors on the foundation of these assumptions. But with the end of the Cold War the tectonic plates began to shift, the geostrategic assumptions were no longer safe, the geostrategic factors needed to be assessed anew on each occasion. It is necessary to examine in the first instance the deeper and more stable truths of physical and human geography, before considering the more short-term political factors. 

As we have seen frequently this was not done and politics led to decisions that ran contrary to geographical factors. For example, take the case of Libya after Gaddafi was deposed and killed. Released from the tyranny of Gaddafi’s rule, Libya fractured into its tribal groupings, each remaining more or less armed and autonomous. The southern grouping supporting their cousins, the Touareg, in Mali, and the two northern groups based on Tripoli and Benghazi opposed to each other. That Libya is a fractious tribal society with loyalties to tribes in other states was known before Gaddafi. I was briefed on this human geography when on standby in Malta in the late 1960s, preparing for an operation to extract RAF personnel from El Adem, should Gaddafi mount a coup against King Idris. Why were we taken by surprise this time?

My profession, particularly in the command of operations has shown me the value of the discipline of geography that I was taught at school. That the earth shapes the society of man and man seeking advantage shapes the earth.  Geography with all its specializations records and explains this dynamic relationship. Hitherto the changes have been relatively local or superficial but are now increasingly regional and global. We are now becoming so interdependent and interconnected, that we are increasingly systemically dependent; particularly now that over half the world’s population lives in cities.  The demand for finite resources is increasing; the environment is being degraded and depleted; the climate is changing; as is the demographic balance in many societies. Man is changing the earth on a global scale. 

We need to understand geography in the round to comprehend the nature of our insecurities both now and in the future. The purpose of politics is to resolve insecurities. Geo-strategic analysis will show the dependencies and relationships that will drive geopolitics in the future—geography shapes the strategy and politics shapes the execution of that strategy within the geography.     


Ed.: For General Sir Rupert Smith’s biography, please see: