Synchronise Watches

It’s fair to say that one of the catch-phrases of Army service, that new officers learn very early on at Sandhurst is: “and finally, ‘Time’ – synchronise watches.” This is worth more than a moment’s thought. It is, literally, the thing that we are trained, instinctively, to consider last. Perhaps, as we shall unpack a little below, it ought to be rather higher up our list of priorities.

Author: Doctor Andrew R D Sharpe

Furthermore, though, we are taught that we should all defer to ‘Gunner Time’. There is, of course, good historical reason for this. One of the big early lessons from World War 1 experience was that if you don’t all have your watches set to the same time, exactly, as each other (and especially the time on the watch of the bloke giving the order to heave on the gun lanyard) then the walk behind a creeping barrage may do as much harm to you as it does to the enemy. Thus, obviously, time should be set to the same as ‘Gunner Time’ and therefore, as members of the Royal Regiment have tediously reminded me over the years, the Artillery is so important that it even owns time itself. Joking aside, though, there is an issue with this. Gunner Time is a fire-planned thing; a linear thing; a mechanical thing.


Training one’s mind to think in military terms of time as: a) our final consideration; and, b) a linear and mechanistic construct is very unhelpful in the endeavour to apply wit and mental agility to ensure that the enemy is not just out-fought, but also out-thought.


And it gets worse. Every recruit in Training, or officer cadet at Sandhurst, is taught to respect the absolute nature of time. The military culture expects people to be ‘on time’, and not just on time but to allow “ten minutes for the Sergeant Major” – so ‘on time’ means ahead of time ready for the given time in a very ordered and precise way. There is no flexibility. There is no room for doubt. A discussion with the said Sergeant Major, on the linear and absolute nature of time and its relationship with space, general relativity and quantum mechanics, in the event of one’s arrival on parade after whatever time it was that was perceived by him as the correct time, is unlikely to end well. So, we learn that time is specific, unnegotiable and exact.


In the two CHACR articles on this subject preceding this one you have been invited to reconsider time. Dr Meral whetted our appetite with thoughts on our own entrenched perceptions, vis-à-vis the perceptions of others, and urged us, in his words, to think of time as an area of conflict, a flank, a dimension, a domain, not just as a competitive edge or weakness in our well-established operationalisation of timing. Then Prof Strohn proffered examples from history, recent and more distant, in which the perceptions and the implications of time impacted upon life in general, and military operations in particular, in ways beyond a more linear concept of time and time-keeping.


So, break from the more traditional lines of thought for a moment and develop, instead, Dr Meral’s and Prof Strohn’s thoughts from the perspective of tactical and operational art. If we distil all of our efforts in these two spheres down to the most basic of levels, the job of the tactician or the operational artist is two-fold: to make as much sense as possible out of chaos (and be comfortable with it); and then to work out how to seize and hold the initiative within that chaos such that you can dictate the out-turn of events in your favour. And, in this sense, time takes on a whole new meaning that the pre-conditioned military mind must work through or get past.


Just a few elements of time that those seeking the initiative must think about are: timing, timespan, tempo and timeliness. In brief:


  • History abounds with tales of great leaders picking their moment, of generals spotting the ‘tipping point’, of the ‘turning of the tide’. Whether it’s Montgomery and his theory of ‘Colossal Cracks’ in the North African desert, or King Alfred waiting out the Danes while hiding in the Somerset levels before launching his offensive at the critical moment of advantage and starting the campaign that ultimately leads to the foundation of the Kingdom of England, or Wellington tossing a chicken leg over his shoulder as he watches a French column move beyond a low hill at Salamanca and cry “by God that will do!” and seize the moment to swing onto the offensive, the stories have a common theme. If you pick the wrong moment in time things tend to go horribly wrong. If you pick the right moment to seize the initiative things have a tendency of gathering an unstoppable momentum. And that that moment is never fixed, but rather is hard to codify, is moveable, negotiable and intuitive.


  • Campaigns have a habit of lasting a long time. Operational art, at its most basic level, is the art of understanding the headmarks that are set and then planning, executing, managing and joining up tactical actions in order to have a series of effects that combine to reach the strategic headmarks set; while, throughout, seeking to seize and maintain the initiative within those endeavours. Democratically elected politicians will inevitably struggle with the contradictory requirements of long-termism in strategy and short-termism in politics. Modern military leaders will inevitably struggle with the contradictory requirements of long-termism in campaign duration and short-termism in operational tour lengths for personnel on operations. The span of time, the perceptions of that span and the different meanings of timespan in a strategic sense between the nations and nationals sending military components on operations and those nations and nationals who are the subject of military components on operations produce a multi-faceted dynamic. Understanding the concept of holding the initiative within this context is, therefore, extremely complex.


  • One of the effective ways of disrupting an opponent is to deliver effects upon him with a tempo that feels repetitive, recurring, unstoppable and inevitable. In Iraq General George Casey described this in his orders as “generating a drumbeat of our actions that resonates in the enemy’s ears and distracts him from his own actions”. Tempo (which is, of course, the Italian word for ‘time’) is most often used in a musical sense and is about marking out the pace of actions, of dictating the speed, of developing a rhythm. All of these things combined wisely by the tactician or operational artist wear down the opposition and serve to reinforce the sense that the initiative is held by those with the strongest or loudest beat.


  • Every military thinker (and, indeed, business strategist) is familiar with John Boyd’s OODA loop: the observe – orient – decide – act cycle. We are taught that to seize and hold the initiative we must be ‘inside the other person’s OODA loop’. In this sense time is not absolute, but is malleable and relative. Observations, assessments, decisions and actions do not need to be fast, they just need to be faster (and better) than those of others. In this sense seizing and holding the initiative is more about timeliness than about absolute time.


There is not space in this short article to explore these complex ideas further, but we hope that the short series of CHACR articles on the subject that have appeared this week have got you thinking. We will certainly be exploring this fascinating side to our profession in much more detail in the coming months. As the world of cyber and technology brings new meaning and compression to time and distance, and as competition with our strategic partners and opponents is re-recognised as a constant continuum as opposed to a finite set of stop-go activities, it is not good enough to leave thoughts about time until the synchronisation of watches at the end of an O Group. Time is not simple, exact, linear, absolute, unnegotiable and mechanistic (regardless of what the Sergeant Major or the Gunner might think). Any twenty-first century tactician or operational artist worth their salt must have time in all of its pliable, flexible, changing, negotiable and manageable forms front and centre of their estimates, their plans and their execution if they are to have any hope of achieving that acme of operational and tactical art: the seizing and holding of the initiative.


This work is strictly the view of the author, not the British Army and Ministry of Defence.