DefenceSynergia – The Communicating of Defence

During the early days of WW2, the Royal Air Force was tasked to drop propaganda leaflets over Germany as a means of communicating directly with the German people. A Fleet Street journalist asked to publish a copy of one of the leaflets but was told by a Civil Servant, without irony, that they could not be published in England as they were classified! The situation has not much improved since.

Just ahead of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR 2010), DefenceSynergia (DS) was formed as a National and Defence Strategies Research Group. DS was concerned that Her Majesty’s Government (HMG) and the Ministry of Defence (MOD) were not honouring their commitments as laid down in SDSR 2010 and the newly developed National Security Strategy (NSS). Reviewing the historical position of the United Kingdom (UK) over several decades and certainly, since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, we concluded – as did most defence commentators and analysts – that defence capability and plans were largely aspirational having never been matched by adequate funding.

The most common expression for this mismatch in defence funding was encapsulated in the word ‘overstretch’. The result was HMG instigated wars and military operations of choice over-committing HM Armed Forces while the Defence Budget was being pillaged in search of a ‘peace dividend’ that could be used to supplement domestic social welfare programmes. Little has changed except that MOD has become increasingly adept at manipulating and controlling what messages the public hear.

DS considered how successive governments continually managed to get away with this outrageous policy aided by sections in the Armed Forces Act and Defence Council Instruction banning communication with the media and public. We concluded the answer fell in the following areas:

a. Control of Information.

b. Obfuscation of key detail, in effect drowning facts in drivel.

c. Excessive claims without enough foundation in supportable facts.

A complete lack of an articulated Grand Strategy has allowed every higher-level document produced by HMG/MOD to be ‘all things to all men’ and to descend into cognitive dissonance where, without clarity of direction, any road will do. The SDSR and NSS are peppered with allusions to Strategy even in the titles but one would be hard-pressed to find a cohesive strategic path for Government departments to travel, offering only a nebulous phrase ‘the UK to maintain its worldwide role’.

In the publication of SDSR 2015 HMG and MOD have classified the formerly unclassified aspects of the Defence Planning Assumptions (DPA). It is worth remembering that the DPA in SDR 98 and SDSR 2010 were set out in clear and non-classified terms. Inconveniently for HMG that allowed some public understanding of what and why HM Armed Forces were being funded to do. Pre SDSR 2015 the public element of DPA would, for example, provide guidance as to deployment sizes, duration and concurrency for major Army, Royal Navy (RN) and Royal Air Force (RAF) units and formations. Thus, it was largely the ‘overstretch’ argument when setting against the DPA that were causing the maximum political hurt to the governing party. Therefore, we see in SDSR 2015, that instead of HMG admitting that funding did not match the stated plans or at least allowing the DPA to provide a calibrating factor, the newly classified status obscured rationale and intent from public scrutiny.

DS considers this control of understanding, communication and information writ large!

This control of understanding and information continues to pervade all that MOD does and says. Defence correspondents continually remark upon the lack of independent confirmatory sources, having to rely solely upon MOD PR briefings and handouts. This control of information transcends reasonable caution and has been embedded in an enforceable disciplinary code only within the MOD Civil Service and for serving military personnel. In effect, all personnel below ‘star’ rank must seek permission through the chain of command to speak publicly, even to their Member of Parliament (MP), and one star and above must seek Secretary of State approval of scripts and speeches to be made in public. This has led to bizarre consequences. For example, MOD staff have been prevented from discussing matters with their MP (then a minister in MOD), and even on occasion from discussing matters with their MP who was also their spouse.

DS was made aware several years ago that serving personnel were being told that they could not discuss matters concerning their service with their MP without first getting clearance through the chain of command. It may be that the rule has been misinterpreted but the effect has been to cause a major stifling effect amongst the rank and file and a disconnect between senior commanders and the British public whom they serve. This gag appears only to apply to Armed forces professionals and not teachers, health workers, police, fire, local government who are able to keep the public informed and are accountable.

Therefore the public are unaware of the parlous state of some areas of our Armed Forces, which are currently about a third as large as they were in the 1990s, and their support networks such as Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S), for procurement, and scientific research through Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL). The latter being the small component of about 3500 staff left from a once vigorous network of non-nuclear research establishments of over 12000.

Independent verification of MOD PR is starved of access to data. MOD magnifies a very little into a very great deal whilst ignoring the truth of the facts given by numbers. Releases are often banal, contrary to open source data, analysis. When challenged MOD fall back on the circular argument “these are complex issues that only those in the know are really able to analyse” but “we are sorry that person is unavailable” or “that person is unable to contribute because of the classified nature of the query”.

For example, a freedom of information request (FOI) is often the convoluted way that information is prised out of MOD, but it can be a long-winded process which is susceptible to sophistry regarding how the original question is phrased. Therefore, the FOI system cannot be a substitute for MOD to honestly and regularly communicate with its paymasters – the taxpayers.

State secrets aside, the MOD and its Government handlers, unlike most other Departments of State, are hiding behind a mask of obfuscation and information paranoia. It is time for the British Armed Forces, especially the service chiefs, for the good of National Security, to be allowed to publicly and proudly explain who they are, what they do, why they do it, what they need and when.

DS conclude that there is a requirement for action to cancel the Ban on Communication with the media and public. To bring Armed Forces professionals into line with their peers who manage security control by means of the Official Secrets Act and are understood and accountable to the public.

Some years ago, the Security Services came out of the shadows into the light, opening out to more public observation and scrutiny, without compromise of operational effectiveness. It is time for MOD to come into the light.