Those of you who have heard me, William Hague and Liam Fox speak in the last year will know that we no longer believe a straightforward Defence Review will be sufficient. Recent experience has shown that the next Review should go much wider than the role of just defence or the armed forces alone.
This morning Tom MacKane set out the emerging thinking of the Ministry of Defence as it goes through the process of drafting its Green Paper. In this session, I want to outline my personal thinking on what a Conservative Government might expect from a Security and Defence Review, a few of the “themes” we are likely to attach importance to, and how these relate to the emerging findings of the MoD. The Party will say more about this formally in due course.
I preface my remarks by saying that the Conservative Party views the UK as a regional power with global interests, but also recognises that maintaining this country’s influence in the future will be harder. This will be reflected in a new National Security Strategy if we enter office.
What was wrong with previous Defence Reviews, and what do we want from the next Review?
To answer what a Conservative Government would expect from a future Review, I first need to look at what was achieved by the 1998 SDR – which still sets the baseline for defence policy – and why that was, and is, not enough.
If you assess the 1998 SDR against the strategic context as it has evolved to date, it is probably fair to say that in practice it has turned out to be a tactical document. I make this judgement, of course, with the benefit of hindsight, but it is nonetheless something we should acknowledge as a lesson not to be repeated in future Reviews.
Why do I say the outcome of the 1998 was largely tactical? For four reasons.
First, while the SDR was labelled as foreign policy led, in fact defence came to usurp the place of foreign policy. In many ways this reflected Labour’s interpretation of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ as a justification – if not a call – for the early resort to the use of force, rather than using force as the last instrument. Defence was no longer a tool of government or a means to a strategic end, but became the first port of call.
Secondly, following 9/11 attention was given on a number of occasions to how the military should respond to a changing security landscape characterised by non-state actors with global reach who could pose a strategic threat to Western interests, and to challenges like proliferation. But these studies it did not draw the full conclusions for defence policy or for the mission of the armed services from this evolving threat. One can also make this point in the context of the increasing frequency of severe weather, as we have all experienced over the past few weeks.
Thirdly, while some “principles” from the SDR (and so-called Revolution in Military Affairs) are still taken to be important, such as Network Enabled Capability, have these principles really been assessed again the evolving strategic context? For example, declining technical superiority, the continuing emergence of cyber threats and so on. I will return to this.
Fourthly, SDR did not implement or embed the ‘Comprehensive Approach’. This concept is not, as some might suggest, a new one – it was very much evident on the ground during operations in Bosnia in the 1990s, and to their credit the Ministry of Defence pioneered it.
But it did not manifest itself – at least initially – on the ground in later operations, such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Nor was it elevated beyond the tactical level, as SDR focussed on the limited ambition of achieving ‘jointery’. What this has meant, is that different Departments now interpret the meaning and intended effect of actions like ‘conflict prevention’, ‘stabilisation’, ‘reconstruction’ and ‘counter insurgency’ very differently. This in turn explains why it has taken so long to develop a common UK strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Common language and understanding of concepts is an important precursor to strategy.
In the end the Afghanistan/Pakistan strategy was developed, at least initially, through a bottom-up process, based on what has been termed ‘transformation in contact’ or learning on the ground. Strategy should of course be informed by what happens in the field – I am not suggesting it should be detached from reality. But it is equally important to have – and provide – a clear and cross-Government sense of what you want to achieve before deploying your instruments of national security and an approach is the best way to get that result. For example, I do not think anyone would suggest that we should conduct a counter insurgency campaign in Yemen or every other failed state – counter terrorism efforts, such as capacity building, containment or distance strike operations using ISTAR, might be more effective in tackling some of the challenges they pose.
It all depends, ladies and gentlemen, on context. But the net effect of the three factors I have outlined, has been a loss of capacity for real strategic assessment of evolving risk and instability; how this risk and instability affects UK interests; and what measures can be taken to reduce that risk and instability.
Now what does all this mean for the next Review?
The Review should be conceptually radical enough to encompass all contributors to the national security agenda. No Department or agency can deliver the UK’s National Security Strategy in isolation. As there is no single solution to the risks we face, we need to look at the combined effect of different national instruments. Indeed, I would say that we need to look beyond just the use of traditional instruments like the MoD, FCO, DFID. So if the National Security Strategy develops and embeds a strategic process, the task of a Review will be to underpin this by creating agile and adaptable structures across Government to meet security challenges.
The context for a future Review
Now, this will have to be achieved in a difficult context.
Quite apart from the fiscal crisis, the UK is involved in signification operations in Afghanistan which will remain a priority for any Conservative Government. But at the same time the strategic context continues to evolve at a rapid pace.
At the best of times only the foolhardy predict the future with absolute confidence. And this is not the best of times. Uncertainty and vulnerability, needing flexibility and versatility in response, are key features of the scene. Analysis of the drivers of insecurity is largely shared. The real question is how these drivers will manifest themselves and how we will respond.
I know that the concept of ‘hybrid conflict’ or ‘hybrid threats’ is not fully accepted. We can have a debate on this but I want to put some of my thoughts to you. I would say that we have not developed the concept enough for its irrelevance to be disproven. Where we have got to is a definition: ‘hybrid conflict’ refers to the combination or convergence of different types of adversary, such as states and non-state actors, and of different modes of engagement – such as conventional capabilities, insurgency, terrorism, organised crime activity, cyber attacks and disruptions to supply chains – in the same “campaign” or time frame and almost certainly in different areas simultaneously. I would add to this the increasing risk posed by natural hazards, which are increasing in frequency, scale and severity. This all sounds quite like Paul Newton’s “4 Cs” – that is, the congested, cluttered, contested and connected environment – and, as Tom MacKane added this morning, the fifth “C”: the constrained environment. I am not sure there is difference here. It may be a case of distinction without practical difference.
Be that as it may, at the moment there is discussion about whether Afghanistan is a good indicator of future challenges and national security tasks or not. It has been put to me that the Army is focussed on the campaign level – in other words, Afghanistan – whereas the Navy is looking at things from the “grand strategic” perspective. But it is not, ladies and gentlemen, that one is right and the other is wrong. The question is how to join up these different perspectives and have adaptable processes and forces. And here I think the concept of ‘hybrid threats’ is valuable. Piracy and terrorism at sea and the disruption of supply lines, for example, are growing challenges and a variant of this.
In other words, the concept gets us to realise that we need a wide range of skills. It could be used as a mode of thinking and analysis to encourage all across government to look at the strategic environment truly comprehensively and together. It could help all across government to identify the interconnections between different risks. For example, between terrorism, insurgents and organised criminals. Or the nexus between the different actions that need to be taken to simultaneously tackle climate change, reduce our energy insecurity and ensure adequate food supplies. How do these actions affect each other? For example, shifting to biofuels can reduce the amount of food that is available. My point is not so much to argue the precise correctness of the concept of hybrid conflict or hybrid threats but to drive home the point about the need for some commonly accepted and understood concepts across Whitehall.
The second factor to take into account when discussing the context of a future Review, is coalition operations. The UK must maintain sufficient capabilities to conduct operations, usually it has to be said of a small scale, in relation to unique strategic interests. So a clear definition of sovereign capability is important. The previous SDR seemed rather coloured by the continuing mindset of the ability to rely on allies to compensate for deficiencies. But that notion is outdated and traditional allies and partners, who tend to face the same difficulties (including financial) as the UK, cannot be assumed to now be able to do so. It will be important to be clear about who can do what.
That said, it is very unlikely that any medium or large scale intervention operations in the future will be undertaken by a Western country alone. So, apart from the decision to become involved, we need to into account how the UK contributes to coalition operations. As the Party views the UK as a regional power with global interests, it is clear that making sure existing alliances are effective and developing a wider range of partnerships will be crucial to advancing our interests.
We know that the US will expect Europe to shoulder more of the responsibility for security in its ‘backyard’, so medium scale operations could well be undertaken with, say, the UK or France as lead framework nations. Equally, when we conduct operations with the US, we need to ask what capabilities would be most useful in combination. This is all by way of saying, ladies and gentlemen, that the Review cannot just be a UK Inc. exercise but involve partners.
Restoring strategic capacity and fostering strategic culture
My previous comments about hybrid threats lead me to one of the first priorities of a Conservative Government. And that is to restore the all hazards strategic capacity within government. This will be done organisationally through a National Security Council and supporting machinery, and through the development of National Security Budgeting. We are still looking at ways in which this can be done, but it is fair to say that people follow the money and resource arrangements can have a bearing on how decisions are arrived at and implemented. My personal thinking is that we should try to move to a situation where policy priorities are funded first, and Departments once the division of responsibilities between them has been jointly agreed based on an analysis of which instrument is most effective at overcoming that particular challenge.
Now the National Security Council and its supporting machinery will help restore strategic capacity at the centre of government. It will, however, need to be underpinned by Departments developing their own internal capacity for long term strategic thought – prediction, as we have noted, is hazardous, but policy-relevant horizon scanning is a good direction to travel in.
All of this will, in turn, need to be matched by a fostering of strategic culture at all levels of government. Many in this audience will no doubt have heard last year’s Annual Chief of the Defence Staff Lecture here at RUSI. I would say this marked a welcome start. I understood CDS to focus largely on developing those at fairly senior ranks, but I suggest that development of these skills should start early in the career. It is also the case that developing a truly strategic perspective in individuals requires more than just service in the forces or the MoD: we should aim to incentivise more in cross-Departmental postings, if not also the development of cross-Departmental career tracks; promote joint education, training and working between departments; and encourage integrated working teams on particular subjects.
The importance of developing strategic capabilities in our people brings me to another point. The West has for many years had the advantage of technological superiority over adversaries. But as the diffusion of economic power and technology to both state and non-state actors continues as a result of globalisation, this superiority will decline. Indeed, in some areas it has started to decline rapidly already.
As one example, look at our dependency on cyber and space systems for the functioning of all aspects of life. But the offensive capabilities some countries have – and are – developing mean that this dependency offers opportunities for exploitation. It is vulnerability.
The implications are potentially very significant. For example, does it change the force protection calculus for our armed forces? What good is an Aircraft Carrier Battle Group if all ships will just sit in the water once their systems are knocked out? Or does the dependency of the deployment and tasking of our armed forces on ISTAR assets need to be reassessed? - what happens if these assets are knocked out? The latter is a particularly good example of the need to focus on developing our human capability as a real strategic enabler.
Restoring strategic capacity to the machinery of government, developing a strategic culture and focussing on the development of human capabilities is important in another respect: the importance a Conservative Government would attach to preventative activity.
Labour has failed to focus on prevention at an early enough stage so that it could have real effect. While a capacity for responsive action must be maintained, a Conservative Government would shift priorities to focus on conflict prevention – at tackling the underlying causes of problems before direct security challenges manifest themselves. An analysis of emerging risk and instability is a sophisticated task, which requires keen cultural and political understanding etc.
This focus on conflict prevention is in line with some of the thinking Tom MacKane and the armed forces can make a significant contribution through defence diplomacy, security sector reform and capacity building. These also happen to be activities very similar to those being undertaken in Afghanistan and Yemen. But prevention should not just involve the military. It should be a focus of the Foreign Office, for example through political advisers that link the military to the political environment. The intelligence community should develop an information base to allow effective analysis of emerging risk and instability and develop early warning systems. DFID’s activities should aim to reduce the risk of instability, including by helping communities adapt to security risks like climate change. And we need to explore the role of other civilian Departments. In other words, we need a truly integrated civil-military expeditionary capability.
As a slight aside, just as the military should expect other Departments to help in this task, so civilian Departments and agencies should expect the military to have a more structured contribution to homeland security and resilience tasks. I have spoken about this at length before, and do not intend to do so here today (though we can return to this during questions). I would only say two things at the moment. First, this should result in a change in the Defence Planning Assumptions – perhaps aided by a future shift towards preventative activity and intervention operations that do not aim for societal reform. Secondly, it is not just about the armed forces helping us respond to Mumbai-style attacks or severe weather. The armed forces make a significant contribution to integration, social mobility and education in this country which, as one example, can help tackle extremism and terrorism.
Equipment & partners
To turn back to preventative activity. This activity can manifest itself in many forms. For example, the early deployment of a warship off the Horn of African could – and should deter piracy – so it is, therefore, a form of prevention.
But this raises the question of what equipment is needed by the armed forces. It is not for me to pre-empt the full findings of a Review, though I would argue that we need to maintain a minimum level of equipment to deter against conventional conflict. I would also say that, overall, we need to shift towards more commercial models of equipment design: using ‘modular’ platforms that can be scaled-up for tasks as necessary through incremental acquisition, spiral development and technology insertion. So there would be a basic core of equipment that could be adapted to different challenges as they arise. Crucial to this will be appropriate R&D investment. I would also suggest better linking current UORs to the longer-term Equipment Programme. This is all in line, I think, with some of the thinking behind Tom MacKane’s calls for a more agile defence organisation.
Let me conclude.
I hope I have made clear that defence should be just one part of a future Review: we need a truly cross-Government process that is focussed on restoring strategic capacity and adaptable structures.
You might ask how this wider Review will actually be managed. We are looking in detail at the options and will say something about this in due course.