The MoD’s planning for Mali must include learning lessons from the past

Ministry of Defence Headquarters

Ministry of Defence Headquarters. Image by Chris Nyborg.

As the UK assistance to the French-led operation in Mali has already grown from logistical support to sending troops, the MoD will no doubt be planning for any additional scenarios and possible forms of operations within the country. However, in planning for the future the MoD needs to ensure that it takes greater account of lessons from the past.

The MoD have a number of processes in place for identifying lessons to be learnt from the past; routine reviews of operations reported through the chain of command, ‘lessons learned’ exercises conducted after each operation, Board of Inquiries for accidents or incidents, internal inquiries for extraordinary occurrences as well as routine scrutiny from the House of Commons Defence and Foreign Affairs Committees and the National Audit Office.

In 2006, as a result of a number of failings in Iraq, the MoD sought to improve its learning process further. In an effort to provide a coherent database of lessons, which spanned across land, air and sea as well as lessons at a tactical, operational and strategic level, the Directorate of Operational Capability introduced Defence-wide Lessons Management.

This established a learning hierarchy within the MoD and included working groups, a lessons board, a defence lessons workshop every six months and a universal information system which enabled lessons to be formally identified and digitally archived.

As a result, the MoD offers the most comprehensive lesson learning programme within British overseas security, with relevant access available to all MoD ranks and environments. Nonetheless, the process continues to fail to ensure a rigorous transition from the identification of lessons to implementing and retaining them.

At the strategic level, implementation by senior figures is not effectively scrutinised. At the operational level responses are slow, with the National Audit Office reporting that many of the logistical difficulties in Iraq had been reported repeatedly since 1996 operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina. At the tactical level much lesson implementation occurs informally and remains unrecorded for future use.

For the lessons which are formally identified and implemented retention is low; taught information is forgotten, training is cancelled and The Canon of Army Doctrine offers intimidating and time consuming reading. Most significantly, although encouraged, personnel involved in planning are not obliged to consult with the MoD Lessons Team or the Defence Lessons Library to ensure that any new operation utilises useful lessons from the past.

To be able to move forward into future operations, including any activity in Mali, the MoD needs to strengthen its processes for looking back. Despite being the most committed British overseas security institution to a formalised lesson learning process this needs to be combined with a cultural commitment to scrutinising the process and developing beyond lesson identification to ensure that lessons are learnt. Greater resources and analysis must be directed to improving the lessons process, utilising the lessons data to draw wider conclusions, understanding the most successful methods of lesson implementation and developing systems to distil vast quantities of information into manageable amounts for those taking part in operations.

Louise Sullivan is a 1st year PhD student at the University of Nottingham