General Sir Jim Hockenhull’s keynote speech delivered as part of the Strategic Command conference.

General Sir Jim Hockenhull KBE ADC Gen

Welcome, everybody, thank you so much for coming to Strategic Command’s Now. Next. Future. Conference.

I am incredibly proud to be part of Strategic Command and we’re at a really exciting time for the Command. It’s a dynamic time in the context of world events, and that creates challenges, but it also creates opportunity.

There are times where we are at risk of taking the sum of all our fears and looking too inward and being too worried. I think there’s a moment for all of us to recognise that there’s enormous opportunity. We have an opportunity to focus on challenges that are happening in the world, and the situation is more dynamic than at any time in my military career. Of course, the most self-evident part is what’s happening in Ukraine, but there’s a dynamic nature to the world as well as to politics, and to global challenge. This really sets up an on-off series of opportunities for us to think differently, to act differently, to organise differently, and to be able to achieve different results.

There’s something in the context of the Integrated Review Refresh and the titles of the two documents from 2021, and the one most recently published a couple of weeks ago. Global Britain in a Competitive Age in 2021, to Responding to a More Contested and Volatile World in 2023. The headline statements of those documents are radically different. That creates a series of challenges for us. In many ways, I feel as though the future is doing two things simultaneously. We’ve got challenges which are accelerating towards us and saying ‘how are you going to deal with this challenge?’ while at the same time it feels that the solutions are accelerating away into the distance. That’s not because those solutions don’t exist and it’s not because there aren’t opportunities to grapple and solve those problems. I think our current ability as an organisation just doesn’t enable us to really grab hold of those solutions. We often end up thinking we’re dealing with the future, but what we’re actually doing is innovating at the edge.

Now innovating at the edge is really good. You get dynamism, you get invention, and you get imagination. But what we’re not doing is bringing that into our core business. We almost end up fooling ourselves into thinking we’re really changing, when in fact, what’s happening is we’re changing those bits around the edge of our organisation. What we need to do is drive that change into the very heart of how we run UK Defence. That is a purpose and one of the key functions of Strategic Command.

Of course, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed so much and from 24 February last year, the world changed with war in Europe for the first time in decades. That posed a series of challenges to us. Although we were able to do some prediction around what was going to happen, of course, we’ve been surprised by many of the things that have happened since. What I’m extremely proud about, in the context of Ukraine, is the role that the UK has been able to play. The UK role has been enabled by not just the military, but also by companies, and by journalists, being able to bring the story of Ukraine to a global audience.

At its heart, though, I think this is based upon an existing partnership which we made with Ukraine in 2014. We’ll talk a lot about technology, we’ll talk a lot about digitisation, we’ll talk about a software defined future. We’ll talk about lots of things, but at its heart this is a people business, and it’s about relationships and partnerships. It’s the investment that many of us made with our partners in Ukraine, over a long period of time to establish those relationships which have enabled us to be much more effective with the Ukrainians.

I, and the other leaders in Strategic Command, are so incredibly privileged and incredibly proud of the people that we work with. We have a model that we’ve adopted in Strategic Command of inverting our pyramid. Normally, military organisations draw themselves as a pyramid with a little cherry on top, usually that’s the person that calls themselves a Commander. I’d like to not use the term, Commander. I would also like to invert our pyramid so actually, it’s the other way up. Our function, as the leadership team is to enable, support and empower our amazing people to actually do the amazing things that they do.

There are 25,000 people in Strategic Command, from our regular service personnel from all services, to Reserves, civil servants, contractors, and commercial partners, all of whom are acting together to enable these incredible outcomes.

There’s a slight risk, as we look at Ukraine lessons, that we look for the things which are either obvious, or apparent, or the things that we’re looking for ourselves. We just need to guard against the biases of availability, or confirmation bias. We also need to recognise that the next conflict that we’ll be in is unlikely to be the same as the conflict we currently see in Ukraine. So, let’s learn lessons which enable us to develop in order to move forward.

Now we have people that do that inside Strategic Command, who learn lessons for all of Defence, but we need to do that with all of you. There are lessons being learned by industry, there are lessons being learned by academia, there are lessons being learned by the media, and we need to somehow be able to work collaboratively to think about how we can change. Part of the function of Strategic Command is to help Defence to change. We have three things that we want to do, our core purposes: we want to support campaigning; we want to drive integration, and we want to lead the cyber and electromagnetic domain.

The verbs there are important. We’re going to support campaigning; we’re not going to own it and I’m not going to command it. I’m going to support it. Charlie Stickland is the head of the Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ). He delivers, and he drives the UK’s campaigning. Charlie, in our organisation chart, is meant to work for me but actually in the organisation chart as I draw it, I work for Charlie in helping him lead operations.

So how can we support Charlie deliver campaigning? By bringing all of Defence’s capability together to deliver that campaigning output. That campaigning, of course, means endurance, commitment, time, persistence and avoiding moving around and doing lots of different priorities. Of course, priority originally was a singular word from prioritas, and it was only in the 1940s did the word priorities actually come into vernacular. Until then, people only had one priority.

Now we can’t move for the number of priorities we’ve got. There’s something around being a little bit more disciplined. I view our core purposes rather simplistically in three timeframes. So, there’s a ‘Now,’ a ‘Next’ and a ‘Future.’ It sounds really simple, and it is. The ‘Now’ to me is this year. What are we doing this year? What do we need to do? What are we in the flight of delivering?

‘Next’ is years two to five and saying: “Okay, how can we be better largely with the resources we’ve already got?” We ought not to always be thinking the answer is more money in the next budget round, or asking for new big programmes, but is in fact how can we be better. And, how can we be better is not just how we can be better but; how can we do that in partnership; how can we do that in partnership across government; how can we do that across Defence; how can we do that with allies and partners; how can we do that with the commercial sector; how can we do that with academia and how can we partner differently in that ‘next’ space? I think that’s where the exciting opportunity really is.

‘Future’ to me is five years to ten years. Defence has a habit of wanting to look so many years into the future in order to understand what’s happening. The only thing that is true is that when you get there, you’re surprised because the thing you thought was going to come never ever happens and I say that as a lifelong intelligence officer. There’s something about recognising; how are we going to set ourselves up for the future and how are we aiming for a destination? I’ve been in Defence for so long that I can remember the various objective forces we’ve had; of force 1995; the force 2000 and 2025. These forces never appear, and we never get that. They’re only ever headmarks. So, let’s adopt an approach whereby we’re building in adaptability and agility, rather than necessarily always imagining that we’re driving to a destination.

As part of that, I think within our three purposes, across those three timeframes, we then need to make sure that we’re living up to our values. I really want us, as a Command, to be innovative. That’s not about innovation at the edge, as I said earlier, this is about driving innovation into the core of what we do and living that innovation and we need to therefore be different. We can’t imagine that we can stay in our existing structure, our existing processes, our existing ways of working and be more innovative, because that’s a fallacy. We need to be willing to recognise that adaption is actually part of our function, and that there are things which are under our control.

Now, there’s a whole load of things outside of our control, which are going to force us to change, and we need to be willing to think really differently about how we do our business. We need to think about our second value of being progressive. Let’s be a really progressive element of Defence. I want us to be able to do things differently, to push boundaries, and to not be the same as the rest of Defence but actually to be a thing that’s going to help Defence on that change journey, and really push that. I think if we can live that through our values, then it works.

And the third is about inclusivity and making sure that we’re truly inclusive, both in terms of how we extract the maximum value from all of our people, and give them a really satisfying experience of working in Strategic Command. But also being really inclusive in terms of who we work with. That means a different relationship with commercial partners. It means a different relationship with academia. It means a different relationship with the media. It means a different relationship with our allies and partners, both traditional and non-traditional partners. We’ve got to recognise that inclusivity is actually a strength for what we do, and we’ve got to live by that.

There’s a challenge for us, and I’ve spoken about the need for change, and I’ll give you one example of how I think we need to change. Boyd’s OODA Loop, of observe, orient, decide act – I’m not sure that’s quite good enough anymore. I think a cycle that we need to operate goes a little bit differently. There are thousands of these cycles spinning simultaneously, it’s not a single cycle, but it’s almost an infinite number of cycles that are spinning.

It starts with ‘sense and understand’, and it’s important that we just don’t look for things, but we try to understand and comprehend. But understanding needs to be multi-dimensional understanding. It can’t just be looking at the enemy and thinking what our potential adversary might do. We’ve got to understand the context and we’ve got to understand it in vivid colour and in three dimensions.

We got to be able to really understand and comprehend our environment. That’s a constant thing that’s not just about the enemy, and not just about us. It’s about the civilian context across the globe. It’s also about understanding our partners. Despite engagement, we really didn’t understand the Ukrainians as well as we ought to have ahead of 24 February 2022. There’s something about how we really develop that understanding.

We then go into ‘decide and orchestrate’. We need to be able to harness that understanding and come to decisions about how we’re going to organise ourselves. Then we need to orchestrate, because military operations now and into the future are far more complex than we might have thought. We need to think about how we orchestrate that and some of those things are under our control. It’s orchestration in partnership with others.

When I think of orchestration, it’s often more like jazz than it is an orchestra. If you’re not an expert player of your instrument, it’s going to sound like a cacophony. We should recognise that our responsibilities are for everyone to get really good at playing their instrument, so they can then play sympathetically and empathetically, and pick up from each other, and join together. We shouldn’t expect that someone’s going to write a big orchestration, that we’re all going to play our part and I know that I come in on page 12, on the third bar – that’s not where we need to be.

We need to be much more dynamic in the way of doing our business and think about that orchestration, not trying to control it but to enable going through decided orchestration. We then get to act, and Boyd and I can agree on that.

The fourth part of it is absolutely vital, which is about how we learn and adapt. Our learning and adaption must be at the heart of how we do our business. If we can’t learn and adapt, then we are going to lose. My fear is that we often identify lots of lessons, but we very rarely pull them through into our organisation. Learning and adaption lessons ought not to be a thing which is done on the side of Defence, it ought to be at the heart of Defence.

However, we need to do that learning and adaption in partnership. It’s not good enough for us to just change ourselves. We need to recognise that we need to work with others. And it may also be that other people have the best ideas about what the lessons are. We need to be willing and open to bringing those lessons in for ourselves and be willing to adapt.

Now, there are some themes in Ukraine lessons. The first picks up on the point I’ve just made which is learning and adaption wins. When we look at the forces in Ukraine at the moment and the way in which the Ukrainians are able to learn and adapt, often with support not just from Western military, but from Western commercial companies, it is incredible. Particularly when contrasted to the failure to learn and adapt on the part of the Russian forces. Learning and adaption gives you a key advantage and it may be that learning and adaption helps you deal with your problem of not having enough mass, because actually by learning and adapting, you’re able to gain advantage and that may help you.

The second part is digitisation transforms. There’ll be software defined future, there’ll be digitisation, there will be lots of ways of describing this. The idea of the application of advanced modern technology to military operations is to put it at the heart of how we do our business, how we think, how we act, how we decide, and also how we’re able to develop some of our relatively limited capabilities to make them smart capabilities. Again, this gives us an advantage and I think digitisation, or software, can be defined as a way of generating mass which makes up for some of the challenges we may have over the size and structure of our own military. If we can harness those things, I think there’s a real opportunity for us as we go forward.

The third is that partnerships really matter. I spoke about the partnership with Ukraine. I’ve spoken about the partnerships with lots of people outside Defence as well. Partnerships sit at the heart of what we do, and at the heart of what we do in Strategic Command are our people. We’ve decided that we start all of our meetings talking about people. And rather than talking about operations, or the amount of time that we previously used to talk about money, we’ve moved that into the amount of time we now use to talk about people. By switching those two things around we’ve actually really started to focus on our people.

We’ve got a whole lot of work to do to be the force that we want to be in the future. We’ve got to make sure that the lived experience of our people is right. We’ve got to make sure that once we’ve done that, we’ve got the opportunity to truly exploit all their talents. If we can unleash the talents of all our 25,000 people, there’s no end to what we can achieve.

I’m incredibly proud and I’m incredibly fortunate to be in my role in Strategic Command. I view myself as an accidental four star in that no one was expecting it, least of all me, but by jolly I’m going to make the most of the opportunity. I am also incredibly passionate about what we do and I’m really proud of what we do. I really want to work with all of you, both within the Command and our partners. The fact you’ve come here today gives a lot of hope to me about your commitment to help us on our journey.

Strategic Command is crucial at generating greater integration for Defence and integration wins. That integration journey is very hard but I’m so proud of what we have at Strategic Command, which I view as being the jewels in the crown of Defence. When you look at the Permanent Joint Headquarters, Defence Digital, Defence Intelligence, Special Forces, our Joint Force Development, our education, the National Cyber Force, Overseas Bases, and all of the things that we do – it is just an incredible array of capabilities, that do the most remarkable things. They help the nation stay safe, they help the nation prosper and our charge is to maximise the impact of all of that.

Published 24 March 2023