The first step in this process of creative thinking is to include and retain within the span of one’s awareness information which may not seem directly relevant to one’s aim. – Richard Simpkin (p 205)
The year 2022 is a harbinger of near-real-time social media imagery of two nations at war. Tanks and helicopters burn under unblinking drone cameras. You can purchase key rings made of downed Russian fighters online to support the Ukrainian war effort. With both real and imaginary expertise, pundits provide hot takes daily covering the entire spectrum from insightful to abject nonsense, with the occasional troll throwing in disinformation. It is all new. Or is it?
Having been out of the military for some time and away from Soviet/Russian tactics for longer, one of the real benefits of social media was that I was able to ask; “What are these Battalion Task Groups (BTG)?”, and some kind and intelligent military experts in the Twittersphere were able to enlighten me. My first thought is, “Gosh these will be hard to internally coordinate, let alone achieve any combined effect across battalions, which is what you will need.” A few days into the invasion, I thought, “Simpkin was right; right about so much.” Equally, his ghost echoes in the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) Force Design 2030.
Let me explain who Brigadier Richard Simpkin was and why removing his seminal work Race to the Swift: Thoughts on Twenty-First Century Warfare, first published in 1985, from the dusty shelf is important.
After service in World War II, Richard Simpkin, a Royal Tank Regiment officer, from the 1950s onwards, was heavily involved in the capability and technical aspects of British armor development, including the Chieftain tank, Scorpion reconnaissance vehicle, and Swingfire anti-tank missile. Retiring in the early 1970s, fluent in Russian (to the point of being a professional translator), he embarked on an extensive writing career primarily dealing with land combat. Earlier works (the 1980s) included considering the use of drones and performance enhancing medication in warfare. Drones he revisits in this text. The ideas could easily be part of a recent paper on uncrewed systems. He never shied away from challenging military thinkers. His death in 1986 marked the departure of, as The Times noted, ‘one of the foremost military thinkers and writers of recent times.’ (Back cover page 2nd edition).
Race to the Swift is his most notable book. At its release, many young Australian Army officers (me included) were still trying to get their heads around Maneuver Theory; it provided an important foundation. Admittedly, it is not as accessible as Robert Leonhard’s the Art of Maneuvre; however, it is far greater in span and, as I will explain, in prescience.
Race to the Swift consists of five parts, each of a few chapters. The chapters, like the parts, are sets of ideas that are similar in theme and strongly related; but not held in a tight, logical flow. Simpkin tends to place small, loosely related musings throughout his work. Some, such as the discussion of the potential of Soviet submarine aircraft carriers (bizarrely topical at the time of writing), still have some benefit conceptually today—the ideas not being far from the once proposed arsenal ships of the U.S. Navy. Others are far more direct in insight and, whilst generally set in the scenarios of conventional European conflict during the Cold War, remain relevant and worthy of further reflection. Arguably many of the problems and limitations in military thinking that Simpkin cites remain unresolved today.
His writing style is almost conversational in approach but dense, so it does mean a bit of work for the reader. However, it merely takes a little more effort; it is not a book I would recommend reading in one sitting, but rather a chapter at a time. Then you will find yourself revisiting sections frequently. Some charts and diagrams are somewhat pseudo-scientific in format and again best viewed once and revisited later. It is around three hundred and fifty very well referenced and conceptually rich pages—more a degustation than Leonhard’s hamburger and fries.
Under manoeuvre theory, offence and defence are not the opposites as they are under attrition theory but points, or rather arcs, on a continuum. (p 99)
The effort is, however, well rewarded. Race to the Swift is a summation of Simpkin’s lifelong study of warfare embodied in probably the most balanced explanation of Maneuver Theory ever written. The author in no way bows down to some form of armored warfare worship (a false correlation anyway), and touches succinctly yet profoundly on most aspects of land warfare. He sweeps confidently across a range of land operations issues, the nature of ground, mass, momentum, surprise, command, personnel management, logistics, force development, and directive control. There are even hints of the coming information revolution, which had not yet arrived in full force when the book was written (1985). We must give him some forgiveness for a few blind alleys (such as massed low-cost air mobile forces), for we have the benefit of living in his future. However, the principles that led him down this street parallel the logic of some of the contemporary drone concepts (swarming). If you look at his proposed concepts for a ‘future British Army’ (p 293), it has a very strong thematic similarity to the current USMC future concept. Given the time of writing, this is a testament to his intellect.
Simpkin wrote Race to the Swift around the problems of the Cold War and the land battle in Europe, which explains, perhaps, why it has fallen from sight. A reprint has not occurred since 2000, and it is reasonably hard to obtain a second-hand copy, but not impossible. It is a powerful work not because it discusses the problems of the time but because the underlying Maneuver Theory presented is rich and balanced. For example, the interchangeability of the shell and the bayonet is discussed (artillery fire and infantry shock had equivalent and complimentary effects against enemy troops and could be substituted for one another as circumstances dictated on the battlefield, a very topical subject at present); enhanced surveillance technology and communication enhance surprise, but do not disable it. Additionally, he promotes the idea of distributed headquarters functions to reduce signature and enable faster decision-making. His ideas stretch us to think, well, what if? For example, what happens if the structural determinate for land forces was deterrence, not combat operations? The list is long, indeed almost every section of the book invites such debate.
Aside from the land warfare student and professional, I believe there is one other group that should attempt to come to grips with it. As Colin Gray has said, “Bad strategy kills but also so do bad policy and tactics” [(Gray, 2007) p54]; it is perhaps time that some strategic analysts improve their understanding of land warfare. Cooler heads have prevailed in the current debates on the shape of land warfare in the future. However, the quality of this debate and the need for land warfare practitioners to enlighten others on fundamentals before proper discourse and avoiding polemics is surprisingly thin and disappointing in its sophistication. Race to Swift introduces strategists to the paradoxes and difficulties that the nature of land warfare inflicts, something that cannot be judged by merely looking at the size and equipment of armies.
This is why it has always struck me as folly to begin military training with a vicious process of dehumanisation. (p 312)
There has been some healthy, informed debate on the benefits or otherwise of Maneuver Theory, and this is important. However, entering such a debate without Simpkin is to miss one of the most important contributors. That is why I believe his rediscovery is so essential. My view is that Maneuver Theory is just that, a theory. All such theories will encounter inevitable praxis. However, the rewards are disproportionally greater the few times you can remain close to its potential outcomes. However, you can’t do that if you don’t understand it (the Russian occupation of the Pristina airport during the Kosovo War is, in my humble view, an apex example of Maneuver Theory). As an aside, the attrition vs. maneuver debate is an immediate indicator of only partial understanding, to put it kindly.
In a prescient article written in late 2021, T.X. Hammes contends the tactical defense is returning to dominance. Terrain and troop density considerations aside, this thesis is well worth more energetic debate. Perhaps, this shift has been ongoing since 1945; the ease at which data can be moved in engagement cycles and increased on board processing and sensors of weapon and autonomous aerial systems is now taking us over this tipping point. Simpkin does anticipate this to some measure, hence the book’s title. Going static under modern air power, be it backpack launched or from a hardened runway, is no longer a good idea (it never was, really). The defense as the most robust posture yet offering little promise of a decisive victory, which Simpkin understood well, is a classic Clausewitzian dichotomy and not as new as we think.
Coincidently, as Simpkin was fluent in Russian, his knowledge of Russian (Soviet) military practice was impeccable. Both Race to the Swift and his last book, Deep Battle, confirm that depth. This knowledge is why I thought about Simpkin when I learned about the contemporary Russian BTG structure. Simpkin was deeply impressed by Soviet operational thinking, which influenced his concepts. However, he was deeply suspicious of the ability of the then Soviet Army to be able to execute such. His reason was the low standards of training and preparation of the soldiers, non-commissioned officers, and junior officers of the rank-and-file Soviet Army. Apparently, this specter is still mercifully haunting the contemporary Russian Army—the past as prologue.
The fact that General Donn A. Starry wrote the foreword to Race to the Swift should give an idea of Simpkin’s influence in his day. Unfortunately, there are a few areas that Simkin brushes on too lightly and perhaps were better off being omitted. Special force, revolutionary war (itself a dated and incomplete concept), receives interesting but too brief and unsatisfactory discussion. However, maybe they are marker posts for others to build on. It would be nice if someone could. At the start of the introduction to Race to the Swift, Simpkin quotes Alfres Thayer Mahan “It will be better off to offer certain considerations for reflection, rather than make sweeping dogmatic assertions.” (p xvii) Good advice for all, and Race to the Swift achieves this intent. It is a remarkable body of work, albeit in an underappreciated niche of war studies. As it did then, it can provide us with crucial insights into the nature of land warfare, both present and future. It is a baton that needs to be picked up again and taken further.
Maneuvre Theory can only be exploited to the full by the practice of directive control. (p 53)
Jason Thomas is a retired Australian Army Armour officer interested in leadership, strategy and risk. He is living in Dubai and is currently studying for a PhD in aspects of mission command.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.
Photo Description: U.S. Marines Corps Capt. William Myers, middle, a field artillery officer with 2nd Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company (ANGLICO), II Marine Expeditionary Force Information Group (MIG), directs Sgt. Daniel Marshall, left, and Cpl. Austin McAfee, joint fire observers, 2nd ANGLICO, II MIG, while executing a tactical maneuver during a close air support (CAS) training event at Marine Corps Outlying Field Atlantic, North Carolina, January 12, 2021. The CAS training helped build unit cohesion and gave the Marines an opportunity to enhance their knowledge as joint terminal attack controllers and improve their efficiency in coordinating fires with aircraft.
Photo Credit: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Henry Rodriguez II