National Defence & Strategy Research Group
Exposing the incoherence and weakness in the United Kingdom’s
Defence and Security Strategies
Her Majesty’s Government – Crisis Management and Strategy
It can be argued that for a stable global diplomatic environment to be created core values, many established by the United Kingdom and its allies over time must be defended if the conditions necessary for manufacturing and world trade to prosper are to be maintained. Yet increasingly the UK is threatened by the burgeoning ambitions of the Peoples’ Republic of China, The Russian Federation , North Korea and The Islamic Republic of Iran when they ignore the international rules based order. This thesis has been shewn to be correct through the past actions of these nations and more recently in evidence given to the House of Commons Defence Committee (HCDC) during their 9 Sept 2019 inquiry into Her Majesty’s Government’s (HMG) response to the crisis in the Straits of Hormuz. The latter inquiry the current Secretary of State (SoS) for Defence declined to send a representative to on the dubious grounds that our Armed Forces may be put at risk. The irony of this position in a democracy seeming to be lost on our new SoS or those advising him.
DS suggests that the SoS would do well to devote his first weeks in post to a strategic evaluation. If he does he will note that history has consistently demonstrated the United Kingdom’s (UK) primary ‘National Interest’ is to protect the free flow of goods – today one might add services and data as well. He might consider that a maritime/air/Cyber and intelligence led approach to diplomacy and security is key for UK because the vulnerability of the British Isles – an island – whether threatened by Napoleon, The Kaiser, Hitler or a 21st century dictator, has been and continues to be resource starvation.
Based on evidence gathered in consultation with academic and strategic thinkers such as Sir Michael Howard, Sir Hew Strachan, Dr Julian Lindley-French, Sir Bernard Jenkin and others, DS has confirmed that UK strategy since the end of The Cold War has not been articulated in any coherent sense by Her Majesty’s Government (HMG), of whatever hue. As a result, British Global Interests have been neglected and the management of crises severely hampered. A limitation exposed by the HCDC recent inquiry when it was disclosed by Penny Mordaunt, the former SoS for Defence, that the Cabinet Office, National Security Council (NSC) and Cabinet Office Briefing Room A (COBRA) failed to manage the unfolding Gulf crisis primarily because The Prime Minister (PM) and her National Security Advisor (NSA) seemed insulated from (or deaf to) professional military/naval advice and detached from Strategic guidance.
In the event, Iranian threats to freedom of navigation and commerce led to a British registered tanker being seized before the Royal Navy (RN) presence in the region was reinforced and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and Ministry of Defence (MOD) had worked out which centre of influence would best suit British Interests. The European Union (EU) (with no in-place assets and a confused diplomatic relationship with Iran) or United States (USA) (with a carrier group in-theatre and a full understanding of the firm stance required when opposing Iran’s geo-political, pathological inability to tell the truth, power politics? It is interesting to note that following the Gulf debacle General Patrick Sanders, Commander of Joint Forces Command (JFC), was reported to have recommended a permanent and more reactive crisis management centre be established.
Two of the largest providers of taxable income in the UK are private finance and industrial sectors. They rely upon unhindered global trade and the secure exchange of data and it should be an area of concern that various studies have calculated that the UK has limited levels fuel and food measured in weeks not months. Therefore, the need for economic growth and the free flow of lines of communications (LOC) dictate UK’s prime National Interest to assure future prosperity in a rules based international system.
Existential threats to the LOC can rapidly degrade the nation’s ability to function. Therefore, national security interests are enhanced through integration of intelligence, diplomatic, commercial and military input to meet the UK’s strategic aims and to aid decision making. The establishment of the National Security Council (NSC) suggested a multi-departmental approach designed to offer a single point of focus for HMG to take the lead in meeting international and domestic emergencies through the pooling of intelligence, expertise and resources.
However, the NSC is dominated by the Cabinet office which has the role of generating and articulating National Security Strategy (NSS) and is led by a diplomat as National Security Adviser (NSA) – the Defence contribution is provided by the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS). However, the HCDC evidence given by Penny Mordaunt points to CDS, for whatever reason, being unable to convey to the NSA or the PM the nuanced Defence and Security advice that the Naval Staff were providing to him as the Grace 1 and Gulf situation deteriorated.
At present the priorities of the NSC are set by the Cabinet Secretary who is dual hatted as the NSA. It is open to debate whether the two tasks combine coherently or are at times in conflict. In the case of the Gulf crisis the NSA/Cabinet Secretary could not have fully understood the complex military and diplomatic issues at stake for he seemingly did not advise the PM to immediately agree to a Ministerial COBRA meeting. In the event the evidence clearly indicates missed opportunity, delay and confusion and a disjointed uniformed higher Command and Control relationship which requires investigating and correcting post haste.
Based on HMG’s own SDSR and NSS commitments to a world-wide role, the diplomatic and military thrust of the UK must be Maritime/Air and Intelligence focused – maritime, land and air capability being funded and balanced to support this doctrine. Flowing from this protection of free world borders, trade, UK trade routes, storage, manufacturing, ports, air, space and cyberspace are key security priorities to underpin UK defence strategy alongside our North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) commitment – the most demanding case being an Article V operation. These ‘balanced’ deployable forces must form the core of UK expeditionary capability to deter aggressors, respond to overseas threats and provide resources for humanitarian operations – operating either alone or as part of coalitions.
Yet SDSR 2015 is incoherent because HMG is mute on the Strategy it will employ to achieve its declared world-wide role. From any proper analysis of the 2015 review (reinforced by events in the Gulf Region and further afield) it must strike any thinking strategist that there is a desperate requirement for the RN to have more submarines and surface escorts; for the RAF to have many more than the nine planned P-8 Poseidon Long Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft (LRMPA) and in the event of escalation, for the British Army to have many more and more flexible heavy transportation enablers – together with rapidly deployable troops – to put a firm foot on the ground in support of the UK’s allies to rapidly secure ground, deter aggression and apply defence supported deterrence and diplomacy.
MOD must be given clarity and all 3 services and Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S) trained to embrace a strategic maritime/air and Intelligence led concept that drives all future operational and procurement planning. As Professor Rosa Brooks of Georgetown University said in 2012 whilst discussing US National Security Strategy: “…without some notion of where you want to go, there’s no principled or consistent basis for making even the most incremental decisions, so you end up with a foreign policy at risk of appearing almost random. As they say, If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there. It’s a sentiment that may have worked fine for the Cheshire Cat, but it’s not a recipe for a sound foreign policy.” 1 Which is why there is a desperate and urgent requirement for HMG to review its crisis management systems, facilities and procedures with Strategic aims to guide decision making.
Sadly, in the recent Gulf crisis the NSC failed to provide UK with a structure capable of offering a single coherent point of focus to take the lead in meeting this international emergency through the pooling of intelligence and expertise – then advising ministers before the crisis deteriorated. The NSC/NSA arguably failed to support the SoS for Defence and her professional defence advisers when a ministerial COBRA meeting was requested before the crisis fully developed. When COBRA finally met it did authorise RN reinforcements to the Gulf but crucial deployment time had been lost and the ‘Stena Impero’ was seized (partly due to company induced procedural errors) but before the hard pressed HMS Montrose had been reinforced.
DefenceSynergia concludes that SDSR 2015 and the NSS are incoherent and Ministers and Officials directionless without Strategic guidance. They rely upon an implied strategic definition to continue a “national worldwide role” without articulating the strategic ways and means for achieving such a nebulous aim. This has placed government planners (not least the Chiefs of Staff in MOD) in the position of having to decide the scope of spending on various changing priorities without any clear sense of the why, when, where and how in respect of future operations?
Relying upon reputation, however honourably and heroically won, will not fill the gaps in personnel and experience left when manpower establishments are downsized to save short term cash. It is easy to gap but extremely hard, sometimes impossible, to backfill personnel or weapons platforms and systems which, however capable, can still only be in one place at any one time. At the macro Command and Control level it is difficult to use and exploit the many professional voices that populate the MOD, FCO, Treasury and Trade and Industry if they are not heard by the NSA and PM. An appropriately empowered permanently manned National Crisis Cell/Centre would go some way to resolving this problem and circumnavigating potential political or departmental turf wars.
This is why DS argues that HMG’s Defence and Security position is incoherent. By not articulating a National (Grand) Strategy for the FCO, MOD and Treasury confusion has been created by HMG and the decision making process has led to unbalanced and severely underfunded British Forces which are far from resilient, ready or logistically capable of rapidly reacting en mass. As a result, current Defence & Security expenditure is merely funding Armed Services that appear to have impressive capabilities but which in practice cannot perform to expectations.
DS applauds the former Defence Secretary, Penny Mordaunt, for announcing that Joint Forces Command, the organisation design to coordinate activity across the Armed Forces, will be transformed into Strategic Command and given a greater strategic role across the five war-fighting domains: Air, Land, Sea, Cyber and Space. We can only hope that the initiative will be Doctrine and Strategy led and not a case of HMG rearranging the furniture. DS believes that an indicator of positive intent would be for HMG to support General Sanders, the Commander of Joint Forces Command, by creating a permanent National Crisis Centre, looking no further than the new Strategic Command for leadership and structure.
Finally, only a National Grand Strategy supported by appropriate funding and a closer integration across governmental departments can channel the nation’s resources on a coherent path to national prosperity. Having a National Crisis Response system in-place continually monitoring and advising ministers using Strategic aims and goals to calibrate priorities would be a good start. Bringing back the Chiefs of Staff Committee and reinstating their single service advisory role in Strategic planning is essential.