What a great shame that the Queen’s Speech contained very little if any mention relating to defence, of course announcing the formal birth of the very much larger Integrated Security Defence and Foreign Policy Review (ISDFPR) – no mention of need to raise defence spending to 3% of GDP from the present 2% in order to ensure that we can continue to defend the UK and its dependent territories, increase presence and play out an increased role internationally including the important role of supporting our NATO allies as the largest European contributor.
Another lost opportunity may be the best phrase that I can come up with now. The reality I am afraid is that we are in no different position today that we had been yesterday or the day before – a position of not understanding the wider importance of defence and preferring to see it as a burden rather than benefit. I cannot remember who said it, but when it comes to looking for ways to save money, the rather offensive term that ‘defence is always good for a billion’ seems still to be riding high in the minds of some in Whitehall. How regrettable is that and will it mean yet another change in Secretary of State for Defence today from someone who as Tobias Ellwood, now Chair of the Defence Select Committee said on BBC Radio 4 this morning, gets the need for strong defence and to provide the nation with what it needs. I fear that the answer is yes!
When, if ever before we are faced with a real crisis, will a UK government realise that defence is and should be THE priority of government or, to put it another way, its master rather than its slave? And whilst I welcome the government initiative to better align defence policy with foreign policy in what is I believe to be called the Integrated Security Defence and Foreign Policy Review (ISDFPR 2020) that is planned to take place during this year I found it interesting to note that last weeks planned meeting of the National Security Council was cancelled at short notice due apparently, to disagreements over the balance of the ‘soft power’ argument over that of ‘hard power’.
Interpreting that probably translates to Dominic Cummings view of slashing traditional hard power defence capability, investing in new technologies such as AI and Cyber against the view of the current Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter who quite understandably, whilst accepting the need for change, flexibility and cost efficiency, seeks to maintain the defence equipment status quo.
As I mentioned in the commentary piece that I put out earlier this week (UK Defence 357 – note that this current defence piece was started and delayed, hence the earlier index number above) ‘as far as I am aware, apart from preliminary work that has been going on for much of the past year, the Government/MOD has not yet even decided who will lead it. Announced in the Queens Speech the Prime Minister said that this review would be the most profound since the end of the ‘Cold War’ and that although there would be no rush, he hoped it would be completed around November 2020.
Timings are relative of course because one suspects that before any recommendations can be made in respect of defence the Treasury will need to have completed the Comprehensive Spending review process, something that I would not imagine will be completed much before the summer recess. Even so, delay in moving the initial process forward in the MOD could well be linked to a notion that the Cabinet Reshuffle and that we believe will be announced today could well mean yet more changes at the top of the MOD. Personally, I hope not and I do wish sometimes that incumbents in NO 10 began to realises the cost in time effort required to bring new ministers up to scratch with their brief. Oh for some much needed consistency!
For another perspective on what the ISDFPR should or should not be look no further than the interesting, challenging and seemingly sometimes provocative talk provided by the former Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Nic Houghton a couple of weeks ago at a meeting of the Global Strategy Forum. Although invited, I was unfortunately unable to attend in person and what follows are from notes taken by a former military colleague who I work closely with and to whom I am most grateful. In the form of edited notes with odd additional comments in brackets, the principle messages contained within the Nic Houghton speech:
The (ISDFPR) review needs to be global and strategic. The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review was conducted amidst the ‘strategic shock of Austerity’ and was a missed opportunity – no investment in ‘novel’ programmes. 2015 was issued amidst the alchemy of unreliable and unachievable supposed ‘efficiencies’ – the ‘intellectual garnish of a failed exercise’ in trying to achieve an (un)affordable programme. So, the 2020 (ISDFPR) must indeed be profound and not be about efficiencies or nostalgia. This review will need to be a fresh, strong intellectual analysis of the Global context.
We do NOT live in the most dangerous times – but in many ways the best of times. Increased health, food availability, reduced global violence – more peaceful in both personal and inter-state terms. (I would add that Global poverty/inequality is also much reduced – although much remains to be done). War fighting at the high end of the spectrum has largely been replaced by ‘inter-state rivalry’ and action below the old threshold; whilst this is not new it is an increasing trend.
There are a significant number of mega-trends – global climate change (water); population growth in certain regions; relative (rather than actual) inequalities/disadvantages (which are much more evident as a result of the internet, social media, etc); pandemics. All bring an increasing anger on a personal and national level (and with it, increased migration from poor, and sometimes violent countries to the stable/rich and the so-called ‘populism). The result is a strategic change/move from inter-state warfare to inter-state ‘security malevolence’. Warfare could of course return, and deterrence and diplomacy must be used to hold it at bay.
Assuming that the UK intends to remain a Tier 1 power, and sustain our nuclear deterrent – what could the cost be to other capabilities; how much hollowing out/resilience of conventional capabilities? If we can’t abandon our nuclear guarantee yet we need to accept that this doesn’t deter other nations from all sorts of things. Cyber is not a morally acceptable alternative. We need to better understand deterrence theory of entanglement. (There was apparently also a comment here that related to possible lack of understanding that what President Trump did in killing the Iranian General was all about ‘escalating to de-escalate’; it wasn’t a ‘fluke’ – and it may well have worked).
Defence must be capable of helping to maintain the ‘rules’ of international behaviour against those like Russia/Iran/China/North Korea who undermine them; this through deterrence and collective defence responsibility. Individual nations can’t do it alone – hence getting others, particularly the smaller nations, to become engaged in the Combined Joint Task Forces (CJTF’s). NATO is an alliance that must be geared to delivering collective capability.
Even in a relatively peaceful world there are still clear dangers. Security is a national responsibility, so what risks are the Government prepared to take, and what level of resource will they be prepared to meliorate the threats e.g. the mega-trends; threats (like cyber) against critical national infrastructure; threats from domestic terrorism and organised crime – as well as from external individuals/states. State sponsored ‘weaponization’ doesn’t necessarily see ‘traditional’ Armed Forces as a part of this.
Diplomacy is a part of conventional deterrence – avoiding or mitigating instability/conflict/war. It does so through eliminating disadvantage and managing inevitable change. Using International Aid (DFID) to help mitigate the mega-trends. But what sort of strategies can we deploy to lower the threat of them – and lower the threshold/likelihood of war? Climate change is potentially (probably) the most significant.
These challenges are not beyond us – we can accommodate the necessary changes whilst ensuring stability – and the UK can lead, particularly in ‘thought leadership’ and diplomacy. But we need to understand the contribution we want to make (and be prepared to resource it)
That said, key players in the UK are seriously ignorant about these issues. The National Security Council couldn’t answer 20 basic questions – it spent all its time in the present, dealing with today’s crisis/reacting to events. The lack of a wider understanding about future strategic requirements, how to communicate/message them. So, there is work to be done!
(Commentary will return on Monday 17Th February)
CHW (London – 13th February 2020)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785